AZTEC CAMERA: STRAY (1990)
1) Stray; 2) The Crying Scene; 3) Get Outta London; 4) Over My Head; 5) Good Morning Britain; 6) How It Is; 7) The Gentle Kind; 8) Notting Hill Blues; 9) Song For A Friend.
Along with High Land, Stray is considered one of the two key cornerstones of the Roddy Frame legacy, and I concur. Nothing beats the startling originality of High Land, but Stray takes Roddy on an entirely different goal — it is his take on The White Album, an ambitious stab at covering everything in sight and sound, and one that nobody really saw coming, certainly not after the Knopflerisms of Knife and the dance-pop-a-roll of Love.
Mainly self-produced, with an entirely new backing band (as usual) and a welcome guest spot from ex-Clash guitarist Mick Jones, Stray does exactly what it is supposed to do: it strays. In all sorts of directions. Pop rock, folk rock, smooth jazz, rhythm and blues, and just a pinch of adult contemporary for dessert — as much as one lonesome artist is able to cover in about fourty minutes. Fortunately, he also happens to be a talented artist, which he almost made us forget about on the more unbearably tedious moments of Knife and the cornier tricks of Love.
First off the bat, the two upbeat pop singles released from the album are two of Roddy's best ever pop songs — ʽThe Crying Sceneʼ is a masterpiece from top to bottom, be it the beat, the jangle, the lyrics, or the structure of the chorus vocal melody; of all the pop songs to hit the mainstream in 1990, this was the most perfect mixture of modern sentimentality with retro flavours, and "Life's a one take movie and I don't care what it means / I'm saving up my tears for the crying scene" is a fantastic two-liner if there ever was one. ʽGood Morning Britainʼ, due to Mick Jones' presence, does have a whiff of classic Clash arrogance to it, but the carefully engineered melodic flow of the chorus is still one hundred percent Roddy. The only minus is that there are two many keyboards on the song and not nearly enough guitar interplay between the two.
The non-hit rockers are not much worse — predictably, they are just a little less hooky, but ʽGet Outta Londonʼ is a nice companion to ʽGood Morning Britainʼ, more vicious in its verbal attack ("down where the streets are paved with sick schemes, the river's running like a snake through a dream" — how come the great god of the Thames hasn't swallowed him up yet in retaliation?), somewhat less inventive in terms of hooks; and on ʽHow It Isʼ, Roddy immerses himself in lyrical and, especially, vocal Dylanisms, sort of trying to recapture the man's radioactive sneer of old and stuff it into a brand new 1990 bottle. Effective.
I am less impressed by the softer numbers — the gentle guitar/piano acoustic flow of the title track, the Chet Baker-influenced vocal jazz of ʽOver My Headʼ, the roots-/synth-pop fusion of ʽThe Gentle Kindʼ. But, unlike the fast stuff that latches on almost immediately, these things are growers. The most difficult situation concerns ʽNotting Hill Bluesʼ, whose seven-minute-long sprawl clearly marks it as a climactic point, and it does feel like the most personal and directly felt number of the lot — it is simply not too interesting from a musical standpoint. Banal as it may sound, Roddy's confessionals strike hard only when they are catchy. Without his pop instincts, he ain't no Van Morrison to work you up with just the power of his voice — something that Knife already showed well, yet, for some reason, here he is falling for the same problem just as Stray was heading for complete perfection.
Nevertheless, occasional flaws and fillerisms aside, the album is a major success, and I am surprised that it seems to have all but vanished from the radars — in 1990, Britpop simply did not get much better than this. (In fact, what with the time gap between the Smiths and Blur/Oasis, Britpop as such almost did not exist in 1990. And, for the record, we are using a broader definition of Britpop here than the one that pins down Blur and Oasis as founders of the genre). A thumbs up all the way: the very fact that Roddy did not collapse under this burden of diversity, but bravely bore it out, only slipping a bit towards the end, deserves respect.