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Fan Essays

Clearing Out the Old House
by Squid

No value judgements to consider...summer school was bad. In the
spectrum of teen life, summer school shot you out over the periphery of "loser", leaving you to sort of hover and disintegrate over "forgotten". Really bad. So why did summer make me smile? My secret was Love - Aztec Camera's Love, to be specific. What did it matter that I was going to sit in a classroom for eight hours a day, feigning comprehension of algebra? I had one delicious hour of commute up, and one back. To me, I was never on my way to school, I was leaving my house to listen to my favorite album, take an eight-hour break to come down from the high, and then listening to it again. Wouldn't you kill for that brand of optimism now?

If you were to ask your average neophyte songwriter how they envision their songs being used, I wonder what kind of answer you'd get. As the accompaniment to the last frames of a famous film? Maybe the first dance at someone's wedding. The encore to an ear-splitting sold out gig at Madison Square Garden! I'm not so certain that a teenage girl's commute to class would be high on anyone's list. But fantasy and real-time utilization don't always take you to the same place. I once interviewed one of the members of the Cocteau Twins. Somewhat jokingly, I mentioned how many people seem to use their albums as a background for intimate activities. I started to add, "Wanna know which one is my...", but I was cut off. "Uh...No.", came the fatigued, yet definitive reply. Apparently, they were all too aware of the end result of their musical efforts. By my estimations, they needn't have been so disappointed. To a fan, much loved music is an integral part of life, no matter what the activity. Love, pain, joy, laundry, and yes, especially sex all have a soundtrack. The real trick is finding music that defines you now as much as it did in the past.

In any article you will read on Aztec Camera, one inescapable topic is youth. High Land, Hard Rain was written when Roddy Frame was about sixteen, and you damn well aren't allowed forget it. Seventeen years later, the crucial difference between Framo's music and all the other artists I grew up listening to is that the melodies and lyrics have not aged. Consider Love again briefly: for many of us, Killermont Street was a song about romance and all the places our little adolescent hearts might disappear to, if only given the freedom. Recently Roddy performed this song acoustic on the BBC program, Later. Stripped of all its embellishments, Killermont Street was still moving, but for completely different reasons. I could now hear it as a well-travelled, bridge-burning, bill-paying, exceedingly un-romantic adult. It was still lovely and reminescent but, somewhere along the line, had become more about how far we've come, and what many of us gave up along the way. Suffice it to say, I did not have a similar experience upon revisiting, "Hungry Like the Wolf".

Now that I have thrown that detailed declaration out in the forum, one might be annoyed to learn that I hardly ever listen to any Aztec Camera that predates Stray, which was released in 1990. So many Aztec Camera reviews harp on the early albums ad nauseum. This is a massive cop-out, and one that has managed to cheat many newer fans out of the conceptual drama of Dreamland and the Springsteen-esque balladry of Frestonia. (Yes, I said Springsteen. Listen to those descending piano chords on "Crazy"!"). See, I harbor this terrible little secret, something that separates me from many a 'teccer: I like Roddy Frame's later albums better than the early ones. The North Star, especially.

I first realized I had this problem in 1993, the year that Roddy's collaborative effort with Ryuichi Sakamoto, Dreamland, was released. I popped it into the stereo, expecting my typical dose of guitar, requisite heart-wrenching lyric, and scattered political showers. Imagine my surprise when Birds began with the delicate kickoff of Brazilian percussion..."What the..!", I ripped the booklet out of the jewel case, scouring the liner notes, "Nana Vasconcelos!! Milton Nascimiento!! What the hell is going on here?!" I sat there for the next hour, listening in disbelief and happiness to each track, listening to this major step forward. Because while I adored Love, and while it was Aztec Camera's biggest financial success, I also knew that it had alienated some of Roddy's die-hard fans. Perhaps Framo sensed that, too, because Love's follow-up, Stray, was predominantly a straight forward rock album, albeit with references to the World Saxophone Quartet and Wes Montgomery.

What Dreamland accomplished was a far more natural synthesis of, for lack of a better word, "ethnic" influences. Love was very often characterized as "blue-eyed soul", the album as a whole had the feel of a tribute to African American rhythm and blues. With Dreamland, the influence, now Latin, was still apparent, yet the production was far more intricate, with traces of instrumentation woven into the structure of Roddy's existing songs, as opposed to Love's deliberately American stylings. Take one of Love's milestone tracks, 'How Men Are', which is a showcase for some of Roddy's best lyrics, and built out of a no-nonsense soul bassline. Now compare it to, say, 'Black Lucia' with it's beautiful flourishes of almost-flamenco, all delivered on electric guitar so as to confuse the punter even further! The subetly of placement doesn't end there: Dreamland also features Latin infusion in it's lyrics, with references to Spanish people, places, and events. It's entirely possible that relating his experiences lyrically freed Framo up from having to tell his entire story with instrumentation. As a result, there is never a moment on Dreamland that feels falsely executed. At the risk of ignoring the obvious, it should be noted at this point that a great deal of the credit is most likely Sakamoto's. As a producer, he is a mix of classical training and modern aesthetic, and probably the only person who could orchestrate all the different layers Dreamland required.

In 1995, Aztec Camera released Frestonia, and no fan outside the UK would've known it if we hadn't been trained from adolescence to immediately head for the "A" section of our local record-shop every three years. In all honesty, I didn't fully appreciate this album until I was, politely convinced, (read: virtually harrassed), by my fellow members of the Aztec Camera Mailing List. It was they who pointed out the lyrical strengths and musical triumphs of this decidedly low-key album. Repeating the pattern set by Love and Stray, Frestonia was a return to scaled down production values and guitar and piano at the forefront. I think what struck most of Roddy's fans about this album was the change in dynamic: in contrast to the exuberance of Dreamland, the songs on Frestonia are predominantly quiet: 'Method of Love', 'Beautiful Girl', 'Crazy'....and even the songs that aren't soft in a musical sense have lyrics that are more personal. For the first time, there is a sense of something in these songs that can only be described as, (gulp), maturity! The same person who encouraged you to "Bin your Filas" has now, "watched his numbers turn on a glass wall", and, like his fans, realized that youth was not an indefinite commodity. So what now, my love?

The best moment of Frestonia, to my mind, is 'On the Avenue'. Though based on Ivor Cutler's, 'A Triangle of Hair', it's basically a musical take on T.S. Eliot's, 'Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock', beginning as a moody, existentialist ramble through the streets of a city and spiralling inward to the consumation of a relationship. (The primary difference being, of course, the hopeful tone of the song's ending. Whereas Prufrock is undone by love, Framo's protagonist is saved by it.) The melody, a deceptively simple interaction between guitar and piano, never competes with the lyrics, yet still holds its own. The secret to this balance on Frestonia is a fairly obvious one: Roddy's voice. By continuing to sing in the lower register suggested by Sakamoto on Dreamland, the lyrics get the attention they deserve, simultaneously drawing attention to the beautiful line of the melody.

Once the requisite three years had passed, we hopeful got the word that Framo was ready to release album number seven, The North Star. I'd like to play it cool but truthfully, I was fairly preoccupied with anticipation...and fear. Framo had, as usual, kept an incredibly low, "Someone feel his pulse!" sort of profile, and I honestly wasn't sure what he had in store for us. I needn't have worried: The North Star is what happens when precocious gives way to clever. All of the old patterns are there, the lyrics that still want to convince you that Love is the Answer, the inspired melodies that, upon first listen, make you nod your head as if to say, "Yeah. Yes, he's still got it...thank God...". But this girly outpouring is hardly making my point, is it? So, what exactly is so great about The North Star?

Economy, to begin with. A fellow college DJ once said to me, "Bands should only be allowed to make two albums, because they always mess it up by the third time around." We were discussing the tendency of more experienced musicians to become complacent with their production and create albums that sounded 'diluted', or devoid of what had originally made them so outstanding to begin with. Track by track, The North Star has exactly enough production to make the songs work, and no more. (Apparently, we owe this debt to Lucinda Williams and her latest album, 'Car Wheels on a Gravel Road', which Framo was listening to around the time The North Star was recorded. I'm about to send the woman flowers.) The breathless melodic jump from verse to chorus in the title track, the painstakingly controlled build to the bridge on 'Strings', and although it's a B-side, the perfect interaction of rhythm and lyric in Biba Nova. (Listen to the phrase, 'In a split second', and you'll hear what I mean.) All this beautiful work is on one album, and I haven't even begun to describe what I consider the heart of the album: Autumn Flower.

Autumn Flower is a bit deceptive. Upon first listen, it could sound very much like Stray, most obviously for its use of guitar and piano. It was initally the lyrics that drew me to this song, specifically the phrase, 'See the sky move slow'. This struck me as a fairly atypical lyric, and not because of the allusion to nature. (Because there are enough natural references on this album to start a bloody wildlife preserve.) It's actually the passive manner in which the lyric is presented that's noteworthy. To see the sky moving slowly, you have to be perfectly still and submit to the experience. No easy feat in this day and age, especially not from the person who, "caught the fastest train his feet could find".

Any time we are afforded the luxury of observation, we run the risk of not liking what we see. Autumn Flower, much like Killermont Street, is a song about taking a long, hard look around you. There is an underlying sense of resignation to this song that, sung by anyone else, would probably ring of melodrama. Once again, it is the pragmatism of Roddy's vocals that save the day. Instead of sounding weepy, Framo sounds like someone moved, but not destroyed by his surroundings, by his life. ( I am of course reminded of Donald Fagen, whose laconic vocals were the perfect foil for the sordid tales laid out in the majority of Steely Dan songs.)

And all of this wrapped in the melody. The sparingly used production enables the piano track on this song to truly the mimic the season it references in its coolness. The opening notes seem to drop out of the sky, they fall perfectly beside one another, and set the stage for the rest of the melody. (If you aren't with me yet, try walking down a city street with this song on your walkman. Don't blame me if you walk into something.) The tone of the piano, paired with the vocals keep you at arm's length for almost the entirety of the song....and then....here come the those lyrics,

"See the sky move slow
Watch the wind blow"

followed by the warmest sound Roddy's managed to elicit from a guitar yet. Saving the solo for the end of the song utterly changes its dynamic. Instead of leaving you as lost as the lyric, Roddy's playing grabs your arm and leads you back home safely. All this feeling, thought and sound. All in about three minutes.

One of the best parts about being a music anorak is being able to shake your head sadly at anyone four months younger than you and say things like, "Spiritualized? Oh, I suppose so, but really, Spacemen 3, now THERE was a band...". But the past is where it is for a reason. Those awkward, tragic teen years are, happily, over. Those awkward, tragic twenties are pretty much long gone, too. Some of the music we listened to then still sounds great, it's true...but why dwell on the past? The 80's are over, and huge Aztec Camera fan that I am, I don't consider them to be Roddy Frame's defining era. The 90's saw the release of some of Framo's greatest work, with The North Star being one hell of a way to end the decade. Dreamland gave me Birds, the song I love so much that I wore out the repeat button on my stereo. Frestonia has Crazy, with its sleepy blue guitar. The North Star, well The North Star has it all, basically. The funny thing is, after all I've said, as much as I cherish these albums, I don't believe for a second that I've heard the best of Roddy Frame. That, my friends, is still to come.   

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