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Three Is the Magic Number

from The Scotsman - April 28, 2006
by Fiona Shepherd

Although Aztec Camera was always just a name, a convenient cloak for Roddy Frame to hang around his songwriting rather than a fully fledged band, something changed when Frame ditched the pseudonym and started to attach his own name to his recordings. He cast off slick 1980s production values, major record labels and their need for an artist to deliver commercially, and everything that wasn't about The Song.

He stopped being a pop star - a status he had never worn comfortably - and started being a songwriter. Not that he wasn't a sterling songwriter already - he had been Scotland's most precocious songwriting talent since he first peered through that fringe at the turn of the 1980s, joining the legendary Postcard Records roster as a callow 16-year-old - it was just that there wasn't any escaping the craft of the man once he stripped everything back to guitar and voice. His loyal fanbase took to these instantly beguiling new songs with as much affection as they felt for the early classics. Frame was a thoroughly respected elder statesman by his mid-thirties.

Western Skies is his third "solo" album, following The North Star, released in 1998, and 2002's Surf, with which this forms a neat trilogy of heartbreakingly beautiful acoustic albums. Now in his forties, Frame is in a very introspective state of mind, reflecting on his life, art, relationships and the past with an impressively poetic turn of phrase and frames these observations in exquisitely simple arrangements.

The opening title track sets the wistful tone. This bittersweet slice of springtime melancholy, embellished with hints of harpsichord and melodica, is a small meditation on life choices and leaps of faith, and is one of the few tracks which look to the unknown future rather than dwell on the errors of the past.

Throughout the album, the past is alternately something to be regretted or to celebrate warmly. Frame imagines the waves washing away painful memories and present pressures on Shore Song. The Coast, another impressionistic portrait of contemplative nostalgia, equates the ebb and flow of the tide with the surge of remembrance. Like its companion piece, it is typical of the painterly approach to lyrics on this album. In fact, the many images of sea and shoreline and references to the clash of town and country permeating the album suggest Frame may have spent time writing at some coastal retreat.

In contrast, he sings "the city streets reflect the hard lines of my mind" on the mellifluous Dry Land, where he tries to find some grounding by recalling childhood sensations. "The bar was amazing - two types of chocolate and raisins/ If life could taste that good again I swear I'd never complain" are lines loaded with wonder and a sense of woe.

Rock God is equally charming, a tender paean to the liberation that comes with the discovery of rock music, especially the exotic world it opens up to a smalltown kid. Its reference to a "hippy glam intruder" may sound like a Fall song title but, given that Frame pastiches the riff from All the Young Dudes, this is clearly his tribute to Bowie and how he inspired Frame to step up to the plate himself: "in time I heard the deafening roar as the lines blurred and I slipped on through the door."

There is a further backward glance to his early musical aspirations ("got a glimpse of the me that became the one that you see now, trying on a voice like a man's for the boys in the band") on Marble Arch, a gentle song suffused with unspecified regrets and soulful vocals, while She Wolf is a more explicit dose of the blues ("I feel her rise, she wolf, birthing inside of me") with just voice and sonorous slide guitar.

The more meatily arranged Day of Reckoning is the most upbeat, instantly catchy song here, celebrating the transforming potential of love. Worlds in Worlds suggests you can never really escape the more nefarious elements of your past, an apprehension also on Frame's mind on the closing Portastudio.

From the expanse of Western Skies to the claustrophobia of Portastudio, this is a 40-minute journey deep into Frame's songwriting soul. It could signal the close of a particularly fertile chapter of his career, as he has intimated his next step might be to move away from just guitar and vocals and form a band again. This is an intriguing prospect but, on this beguiling form, we should all cherish the time he spent alone in his head.   

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