AZTEC CAMERA: DREAMLAND (1993)
1) Birds; 2) Safe In Sorrow; 3) Black Lucia; 4) Let Your Love Decide; 5) Spanish Horses; 6) Dream Sweet Dreams; 7) Pianos And Clocks; 8) Sister Ann; 9) Vertigo; 10) Valium Summer; 11) The Belle Of The Ball.
After the diversity and energy of Stray, this follow-up initially feels like a big disappointment. Instead of drawing upon the success of ʽCrying Sceneʼ and ʽGood Morning Britainʼ, Roddy decided against being pigeonholed, and intentionally made a record that tries to be everything that its parent was not. Soft, monotonous, slow-to-mid-tempoish, with «moodmeister extraordinaire» Ryuichi Sakamoto as the general overseer. At times, this is more Sade than Aztec Camera, and the first couple of listens are beset with the temptation to just let it go.
But my advice is, just keep on listening; eventually, it turns out that Dreamland is not that far removed from Stray, after all. Sakamoto's production, predictably heavy on atmospheric keyboards, dates the music, but does not destroy or even obscure it. The synths, strings, and angel-clad back vocalists just sort of dangle in the background, and some of the back vocals are actually quite pretty (for instance, the "dream sweet dreams" harmony bit in the chorus of the same-titled song). The real catch is whether, this time around, Roddy's vocal melodies, subtle guitar phrasing, and «intelligently idealistic» attitudes will work their charm on you. After all, there is always the danger of repeating the mistakes of Knife — leave it to another professional (be it Knopfler or Sakamoto) to supply the «mood» and just follow it up with words, words, words.
Fortunately, in Dreamland words, moods, and subtle melodies mesh together in a less forgettable way. ʽLet Your Love Decideʼ is a good example — the introductory twenty seconds of simple synthesizer patterns seem like prime-time generic adult contemporary, but then the song begins to grow. Minimalistic pianos, quiet guitar jangle, a little smooth jazz trumpet solo, a thoughtful vocal buildup to the chorus, Roddy's genuinely seductive voice, a cute little violin solo at the end — this is not only «too much» for «generic adult contemporary», this is what separates a genuinely heartfelt, touching «mood ballad» from a hollow commercial fake. So it seems to me.
Roddy was only 29 when the album came out, but we all know what sort of an overgrown kid he was from the beginning — so it probably shouldn't be surprising that Dreamland gives the feeling of being written from the point of view of a 35-40-year old. There is a kind of maturity here that seems aimed at tempering all the excesses, building up a highly proportional mix of melancholy, optimism, disillusionment, idealism, humility, and solemnity.
Listen to ʽBirdsʼ — it's a stylistic enigma. It could have been just a slow-moving, static, boring piece of radio fodder, but instead, you are left wondering whether the protagonist is really complaining about «lost joy» or if he never knew that joy in the first place. It's a song that sets a goal similar to ABBA's ʽEagleʼ, with better words and far slighter hooks, but more mystery and subtlety. Or ʽValium Summerʼ — here is a song we should all probably hate for its choice of instrumentation and mixing job, but it's got the same enigmatic shroud around it. Why "valium"? Why the «alarm», so clearly discernible in the backing vocals? Do the «penthouse jazz» overtones supplied by the bass and keyboards agree with the mixed emotions of the lyrics, or are they just an extra flourish to add cheap «class»? I don't know, but I do like the song.
A couple of the songs are sung with somewhat more tightly clenched fists — I am quite partial to the lonesome romanticism of ʽSafe In Sorrowʼ and its well-placed old-school electric guitar solos, and especially to ʽVertigoʼ, which has one of the strongest vocal lines that Roddy ever came up with ("...so I feel it and I heed it and I need it then I let it be done" and later variations), and, of course, to ʽDream Sweet Dreamsʼ, which is the most retro-oriented song here (guitar jangle right out of the Byrds' parlour + chorus partially extracted and rebuilt from ʽGolden Slumbersʼ = derivative pop bliss), but there are really no «weak» points at all; each song has a point to make.
I do reiterate — on every formal level, Dreamland can only be classified as «adult contemporary», and if the thought of building up an emotional response to soft-and-silky keyboards, wimpy percussion (or, on the contrary, big, bashing, electronically enhanced drums), and endless «whining» already turns you off, stay away from the record. For now, at least; pack it off until you hit the same mental age as Roddy did at 29 (poor guy). Thumbs up — like Sade at her best, this is the ideal way to record and market this kind of music (if there ever was an ideal way to record it: deep down at the bottom, it is still quite soporific).