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My Camera
by Warren Stalley

The first time I heard an Aztec Camera song it was "Somewhere In My Heart" on the radio in the spring and summer of 1988. It quickly became a favourite tune and I rushed out to buy the single. Pretty soon I'd bought Love and became a fan. But it was when I bought High Land, Hard Rain that I really began to appreciate how special this band was. That album has stayed in my head for over a decade. There are albums which stand the test of time whether it is because of the quality of the music or if it reminds you of a special time in your life. For me High Land, Hard Rain is one of these special records. Here is my review of the Aztec Camera/Roddy Frame records I own. You might disagree with me or even curse me, but I'm sure we'd all agree how talented Roddy Frame is.

High Land, Hard Rain - April 1983

This record is a priceless diamond; a lyrical goldmine laced with strumming delicacies. There's no Aztec Camera record quite like it standing aloof from its successors. The opening track Oblivious is a 24-carat classic etched in stone as the Aztec Camera sound. But it's the following moments that really impress me. "The Boy Wonders" is a wonderful, fast paced song.

"I've brought you some francs from my travelling chest.
You'll spare me the thanks till you know I'm the best".

What a dynamite lyric from someone so young. Another standout track is "The Bugle Sounds Again". A careful melodic tale of being safe and sound then the bugle sounds again. We don't have any time to recover before "We Could Send Letters", a flaming ballad of angst and despair, knocks us down. Amazingly Roddy wrote the song when he was only 16! "Down The Dip" is also a favourite. An acoustic strum which set the blueprint for later Aztec Camera songs. There really isn't a crap song on the whole record. High Land, Hard Rain is more centred around the guitar than any other Aztec Camera album. It embraces folk, jazz and pop with most of the songs sounding like Roddy is playing them in your living room. You can feel his fingers tugging the strings of the guitar and your heart. It's incredible to think how great a guitar player Roddy Frame is on this record. To me High Land, Hard Rain is one of the best, if not the best, Aztec Camera album. There's something irresistible about the jangling guitar, poetic lyrics and simple production.

Knife - September 1984

No matter how hard I try I can't get my head round Knife. I think it's the production although I don't have a problem with Mark Knopfler. I think Dire Straits' Making Movies is a fantastic album. The songs of this record just don't come alive for me. The exceptions are "The Birth Of The True" - an acoustic strum and "All I Need Is Everything" which bursts out of the record like a blazing firework. It gives the musical drone a kick up the backside. The opening guitar salvo then the guitar talking to the synthesiser near the end of the track followed by Roddy playing out the final minute instrumentally. The song is so good it lays waste to the other tracks on the record. Knife the title track is an epic like no other Aztec Camera song, it seems out of place alongside the rest of the tracks on the album, but I think Mark Knopfler is the right man to produce this track as it fits so well into the style of a Dire Straits song. Another thing I must mention is the fact that the lyrical magic of the first record is lost forever. Here the lyrics struggle to make sense ending up jumbled and disappointing. I know from reading interviews that Roddy wanted to tone down his lyric writing but I think that is a real shame. I think I'm missing out on a good album, but I just can't connect with Knife.

Love - November 1987

As soon as you press play "Deep & Wide & Tall" kicks in with its automated drum machine grabbing you. The song glides along with strumming guitar and lush harmonies. Roddy even manages to fit in a guitar solo. Love is an immediate album where the tracks shine with polish and precision. This is Roddy Frame's "Young American" white boy soul that's a million miles away from High Land, Hard Rain. Roddy is happily married at this point in his life; he wants the world to know how great he feels. "How Men Are" is an all time classic that demands attention. Again on this album the lyrical magic of High Land, Hard Rain is replaced by more straightforward song writing. That's not to take anything away from Roddy Frame's songwriting ability. He is one of the most gifted songwriters alive today.

"Why should it take the tears of a woman to see how men are?"

To sum up feelings in one line is nearly impossible, but here Mr. Frame nails it right on the head. For me "Somewhere In My Heart" is one of the crowning glories of this album. It's a pop gem that feels like solid gold. Although it seems out of place alongside the glossy tracks on the album that doesn't seem to matter.

"The closest thing to heaven is to rock and roll".

Then the guitar solo - magic!

Follow this with "Working In A Goldmine", a subtle yet brilliant ballad. This is another one of the highlights on the album. The softly sung intro leading into the catchy chorus with its harmonies.

"I believe in your heart of gold automatically sunshine
Yeah glitter, glitter everywhere like working in a goldmine".

Then the final plunge as the guitar fires off.

"They'll make you work for everything
Never let it roll
Never let it swing
Take control and let your heart sing".

Next we have "One and One", a keyboard driven rocker in which Roddy duets with Carroll Thompson. Even here he finds time in the song for another guitar break. It's one of my favourites on the record. Overall I think there's too many synthesizers on the Love album and some truly great songs are spoiled.

Stray - June 1990

"You don't have to tell me what you're still looking for
Two arms to hold you
And a voice to say
That's alright you can spend the night".

This is probably my favourite Aztec Camera album it's a tie between this and High Land, Hard Rain. It might be the fact that I saw Mr. Frame for the first time live on the Stray tour. It was an unforgettable evening at Bradford's St. George's Hall. Roddy Frame strolled onstage alone then proceeded to play several acoustic tracks. A few misguided people in the audience wanted this man to hurry up and clear off so they could hear Aztec Camera! Finally Roddy went off then returned with his band before proceeding to rock the roof off St. George's Hall! The songs on this record vary in style. There are rock numbers, Clash homages, jazz ballads drenched in late night ambience, romantic ballads and an acoustic close down, "Song For A Friend". The album has got something for everyone. For me the title track is a masterpiece where Mr. Frame has never sounded better or played sweeter; it appears to be a heartfelt cry from the breakdown of Roddy's marriage. It's a moment of bittersweet perfection. I see Stray the album as a flipside to Love. The two records seem to be either side of a fascinating coin. Where Roddy's emotions are upbeat on Love he is most definitely downbeat on Stray.

Dreamland - May 1993

I can't understand "Birds" with its shuffling Brazilian rhythms. The music just doesn't feel right. To me it's almost as if the track is being played backwards. I'm sorry but that's how I feel about it. "Safe In Sorrow" also fails to move me. For me the album really lifts off when it reaches track 3, "Black Lucia". Now this is one hell of a song! If I had been disappointed with "Birds" then "Black Lucia" more than made up for it. The song is a delicious mixture of soft guitar strings, relaxed drumbeats and Roddy's distinctive vocals.

"People say that all I do is think about you
But that's not true
I talk about you, think about you, dream about you, can't live without you
It's just not true".

Another moment of Aztec perfection. But there's more - "Spanish Horses" with its distinctive flamenco style guitar flavoured with handclaps and delicate descending piano notes. This track really stands out for me because it's so different from anything Aztec Camera had done before or since. It really is an experiment which works fantastically well. Other high points for me are "Vertigo" with its soaring, driving keyboards and drum beats like sticks of dynamite followed by the laid back dream like "Valium Summer" which seems to float effortlessly through the membranes of your mind. These are fantastic songs which show just how great a songwriter Roddy Frame is. I think the collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto works well; there's a production sound on this album that is unlike any other Aztec Camera record. When you listen carefully there's all sorts of weird and wonderful noises going on in the mix. I wonder how the Love album would have sounded in Sakamoto's hands. This is Roddy Frame's fifth album and amazingly the muse has not deserted him. He can still write great songs again and again.

Frestonia - October 1995

This album really needs to be played a lot of times before it finally sinks in. At first it's a disappointment but after a while you begin to warm to the tracks. Some of you may never like but, as always, there are strong songs which make the whole thing worthwhile. "Rainy Season" is awe inspiring with its steady, almost oriental, piano introduction then later in the song Roddy lets loose with one of his dynamic guitar solos.

"Well, baby, I never said I was gonna be Jesus!"

Another great song is "Debutante", a ballad that really hits its stride when Roddy proclaims.

"I wanna hear the sound of the tears you're crying
I wanna be around when your tears are drying
Wanna say the things that I know I ought to
But never said before 'cos I thought you knew".

"Phenomenal World" rocks along with a Clash inspired riff in the same way "The Crying Scene" and "How It Is" did. Ultimately Frestonia disappoints. Something doesn't make it shine, there are moments of perfection, but in the catalogue of Aztec Camera/Roddy Frame records this lies low like a sleepy hound dog.

The North Star - October 1998

There's a clean crispness to this album; from the sudden strumming of "Back To The One" to the quiet melancholy of "Hymn To Grace". Throughout the whole record there's no jamming or instrumental self-indulgence just songs - tight, compact and straight to the point. Standout tracks for me are "Back To The One", which surges forwards with guitar based somersaults. "Strings" is a delicate ballad that feels simple and pure. "Bigger, Brighter, Better" shines with its irresistible strumming and self-believing lyrics. "Autumn Flower" begins with a piano then carries on with a hypnotic bass line. "Reason For Living" lifts off with the opening bars of Springsteen's "Born To Run" before driving towards a climatic chorus and, finally, "Hymn To Grace" closes the album with the now familiar acoustic farewell. A gentle tune carried along by Roddy's excellent voice.

I'd also like to point out how great the "Reason For Living" CD single b-sides are. To me they are an extension of The North Star album. They are not throwaway b-sides and really deserve your attention. "Biba Nova" is a chirpy pop gem that could easily be the a-side of a single. "Rainy Greys and Blues" is in the vein of "Over My Head", but here Roddy's voice aches with emotion startling you like ice cold water. What I love about this track is the music doesn't swamp Roddy's voice which gets better as years go by. "Winter Haven High" is a ballad of stormy weather and longing for shelter. "The Sea Is Wide" is an acoustic masterpiece of deceptively simple songwriting. One of the "Sister Shadow" CD singles features another song in the vein of the "Reason For Living" b-sides. "Hungry Ghost Eyes" is a guitar led pop protest that deserves wider recognition.

The Singles

Out of the singles I'd recommend the "Spanish Horses" and "Dream Sweet Dreams" set for the whole of the Ronnie Scott's concert which I feel is an album of its own. Any fan that hasn't heard the Ronnie Scott's tracks is really missing out on something special. I'd urge you to get them whatever the cost. Also must-buys are the "Reason For Living" 2 CD set of singles. One of the "Sun" cd singles also has live versions "Black Lucia" and "Rainy Season" on it so it's a must-buy!

Finally I come to the end of my article and I hope you have found something of interest. Forgive me for any factual errors or poor reviews. Everybody has favourite songs and ones they can't stand. I tried to be honest with my own opinions.   

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