AZTEC CAMERA: FRESTONIA (1995)
1) Rainy Season; 2) Sun; 3) Crazy; 4) On The Avenue; 5) Imperfectly; 6) Debutante; 7) Beautiful Girl; 8) Phenomenal World; 9) Method Of Love; 10) Sunset.
The last album to be released under the name of Aztec Camera (although, truth be told, it is not clear what exactly separates an «Aztec Camera» record from a Roddy Frame solo record) contains a small batch of terrific songs — which literally begs for the question: why is it so small? The basic impression is that Roddy underwent a momentary fit of inspiration, then, happy as hell, rushed into the studio, put down the moments of inspiration, found out there were still thirty minutes to fill out, and then...
...but everything in its due order. ʽRainy Seasonʼ is probably the most cathartic song Roddy ever wrote. Do not dig in too deep in its lyrics, or you might strike disturbing misogyny in there (or maybe not; like every experienced misogynist, Roddy likes to put a heavy mask on that status); just relax in the powerful beauty of its simplistically effective piano line, its invigorating build-up right up to the “well, baby I never said I was gonna be Jesus” climax, or the way it picks itself up once again for an all-out rip-roaring coda. One of the best «singer/songwriter pop music» creations of the decade — right up there with Aimee Mann and whoever else in the same confessional vein you might think of.
Then there is ʽSunʼ — kicking into high gear so quickly that you begin to suspect Frestonia is quickly gearing up to become the pinnacle of Aztec Camera. Everything about the song is beautiful: the folk-pop guitar jangle (generic, but pretty, and besides, it only serves as the basic foundation), the psychedelic guitar tones, the upbeat tempos, the way Roddy is able to dress a rather simple lyrical metaphor (“I’m just like anyone, I wanna see the sun”) in such additional wordy clothes that it does not come across as too trivial. And the fabulous race to the end — by the time he gets around to “I wanna see the sun, I wanna see the moon, I wanna see the stars, I wanna see them shine” there can be no doubt that this is exactly what he wants to do. Figuratively, of course. Just the kind of intellectual idealism that every good person needs.
And then the album takes a plunge. No, it’s not a «mood piece» like Dreamland, and it cannot be pigeonholed as either a synth-pop or an «adult contemporary» record. It’s all quite consistently guitar-driven (sometimes piano-driven) pop. But where the first two songs hit hard with a careful attitude towards hooks, build-ups, and come-downs, little else stands competition. For instance, there is no reason for ʽDebutanteʼ to run nearly seven minutes when it never creeps above «pretty». It is tastefully arranged — everything here is in Roddy’s usually exceptional taste — but it just sort of rolls and rolls and rolls along, slowly and humbly, without any dynamic range (the transition from bridge to chorus, where you could expect something exceptional, is in fact disappointing). ʽCrazyʼ and ʽImperfectlyʼ, although shorter, follow more or less the same pattern; ʽBeautiful Girlʼ is cutely upbeat but oddly unfocused; and ʽPhenomenal Worldʼ never quite lives up to the lively distorted croaking of its opening riff.
In short, with the brief, hard-to-notice exception of ʽOn The Avenueʼ, a beautiful, tears-in-yer-eyes little piano-and-acoustic lament, Frestonia seriously sags in the middle, all the way to ʽSunsetʼ, a reprise of ʽSunʼ in a different arrangement, with more emphasis on acoustic guitar, organ and strings — maybe there is a slight structural nod to Harrison’s ʽIsn’t It A Pityʼ here, especially since, just as it used to be with George, it is not immediately clear which of the two arrangements is better. ʽSunsetʼ has no separate coda, though.
Still, even if Frestonia may not have all the best Aztec Camera songs — although ʽRainy Seasonʼ, ʽSunʼ, and ʽOn The Avenueʼ are timeless and should be heard by everyone — the entire album gets a surefire thumbs up, if only because it simply sounds so terrific. Every time Roddy put out an album, its sound was either «quirky» (High Land), or a bit alien to his personality (Knife, Love), or a bit too heavy on trendy production, smooth jazz, and electronic stuff. Frestonia, on the other hand, is all about cleanly recorded, reasonably mixed basics — acoustic and electric guitars, real, fresh pianos, genuine string arrangements, and vocals that clearly care even if the accompanying melody is a little below par.
The symbolism of the album title — «Frestonia» was the name of a short-lived «independent state» formed by a small London community in 1977 — comes across as a bit too bold: neither Roddy himself nor his music are that special to have a right to claim complete independence from the musical world. On the other hand, it might be just right if we consider the irony — the real «Frestonia» only had as much independence as it had imagination and self-illusion, and the overall sadness of the LP tone is more like the melancholy of an inmate longing for freedom than an ode to joy from one who has already found it. Fact is, the whole existence of Aztec Camera has not allowed Roddy Frame to “see the sun”; and his retirement of the band name after the release of Frestonia might just as well imply admittance of defeat over an idealistic struggle. But don’t you worry, Roddy — others will always be there to take your hopeless place.