Aztec Camera

  • Aztec Camera
  • High Land, Hard Rain (Sire) 1983 
  • Knife (Sire) 1984 
  • Oblivious EP (Sire) 1984 
  • Still on Fire EP (UK WEA) 1984 
  • Backwards and Forwards EP10 (Sire) 1985 
  • Love (Sire) 1987 
  • Stray (Sire/Reprise) 1990 
  • Dreamland (Sire/Reprise) 1993 
  • Frestonia (Reprise) 1995 
  • The Best of Aztec Camera (Reprise) 1999 
  • Roddy Frame
  • The North Star (UK Sony) 1998 

Glaswegian guitarist-singer-songwriter Roddy Frame was the leader of Aztec Camera, whose delicate pop conveyed his poetic sensibility and rampant originality. He trafficks in the corniest romantic clichés, yet somehow makes them seem original. His wistful crooning, lush melodies and endless obsession with love’s ups and downs make his flavorful light pop the attitudinal descendant of Nat “King” Cole or the young Frank Sinatra rather than fodder for the hip set, except for one thing: there’s barely a hint of the cheesy sentimentality commonly associated with old-fashioned easy-listening slush. Frame cuts through the bull and makes the affairs of the heart seem like late-breaking news.

High Land, Hard Rain is a magnificent debut, airy yet somehow lush, filled with lovely melodies and thoughtful, impressionistic lyrics. “Oblivious,” “Walk Out to Winter” and “We Could Send Letters” are all memorable, distinguished by layered acoustic guitars, beautiful vocal arrangements and jazzy rhythms; “Down the Dip” displays Frame’s playful side.

There are two Oblivious EPs. Both include the same remix of the title tune, but the US version has three British B-sides, while the earlier UK edition contains one B-side, an LP track and a live take.

Knife, produced by Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, is a lot less ethereal, employing a stronger backbeat, sterner vocals and horns. Frame’s lyrics continue to walk the line between profound and ludicrous but, for the most part, manage to stay within the realm of lucidity. His writing shows the influence of Elvis Costello and also incorporates a mild R&B feel. Typical of the record’s approach, the lead-off “Still on Fire” faintly recalls the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” (That song’s 12-inch release adds four live cuts.)

Backwards and Forwards EP is a 10-inch record in a folder that contains the band’s complete discography and history, plus profiles and photos. The disc itself is also swell, with four live tracks (only two encores from the Still on Fire EP) plus the band’s ingeniously languid acoustic cover of Van Halen’s “Jump.”

Reduced to a name for Frame’s solo career, Aztec Camera returned to action three years later with Love, a heartfelt but colorless Philly soul record made with studio musicians and half a dozen producers. (Think of Boy George or Paul Young, with music supplied by Steve Winwood.) Although Frame’s singing and songwriting don’t quite suit this musical style, his low-key charm and basic talent keep him from embarrassing himself.

In some ways, Stray is Frame’s return to form, a mature retake on some of High Land‘s themes. “The Crying Scene” is a verdant burst of electric guitar pop; the title track, with its dizzying wordplay and tender sentiments, ponders the pain of lost innocence. But Frame (who produced the album with engineer Eric Calvi) has yet to settle into a particular genre, and the album swings between jazzy cabaret ballads, ballsy rock’n’roll and more blue-eyed soul (“Notting Hill Blues” could be an outtake from Love). The profound lyrics and emotive vocals hold things together, though, and Stray contains some of Frame’s finest work to date. A boisterous duet with Big Audio Dynamiter Mick Jones on “Good Morning Britain,” however, proves conclusively that social commentary ain’t his bag.

Co-producing with ambient meister Ryuichi Sakamoto on the aptly named Dreamland, Frame approaches a nirvana of cerebral passion on “Valium Summer,” “Let Your Love Decide” and other ethereal treats. The haze occasionally becomes a bit cloying — which only goes to show how true Frame’s aim is the rest of the time.

Frestonia (a place? a chemical element?) underscores the apparently endless resilience of Frame’s art, depicting the usual romantic travails with eloquent vigor. “Rainy Season” is a dramatic kiss-off to a lover, while “Debutante” and “Beautiful Girl” probe for truths beneath the obvious. “I got laid just to see / My reflection burning bright,” Frame sings in “Imperfectly,” just in case anyone thinks he’s lost his edge.

[Ira Robbins / Karen Schoemer / Jon Young]