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
"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.