Release Date: Feb 4, 2014
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): New Wave
Youth and ambition; ambition and youth – they could be the definition of the double-edged sword. Say “youth and ambition” and it conjures up images of fresh faces and glorious visions – prodigies who shook the world with their brilliance, imagination and daring, a Mozart or a Michael Jackson. But if you say “ambition and youth”, it assumes a more negative and world-weary connotation: all precocity and arrogance – and ultimately over-reaching.
The post-punk explosion in the UK provided the perfect agar for Aztec Camera to exist and grow. The Scottish pop group, led by precocious teen songwriter and guitar wizard Roddy Frame, followed the rapidly building wave of fellow acts that mashed together genres and politics and points of view. Into that world, Frame released a series of angst-ridden independent singles before making a deliberate push towards mainstream success via High Land, Hard Rain, a lovely and tuneful album that connected bubblegum pop with Scottish folk, and Spanish guitars with Northern soul.
In a BBC interview conducted last year in honor of the 30th anniversary of Aztec Camera’s High Land, Hard Rain, the band’s frontman Roddy Frame talked about how “Walk Out to Winter,” his favorite song on the album, drew from an odd jumble of influences. A fan of the 1977 punk explosion, the aspiring singer-guitarist was inspired by the spirit of the Slits and the Fall even as he began picking up on the clean-toned intricacy of jazz guitarists Wes Montgomery and Django Reinhardt. He also loved soul.
Roddy Frame is the textbook case of a young, precocious, impossibly talented artist who, after delivering a wonderful, even legendary debut, never truly found his voice again. Listening back to the UK’s Frame, the founding and only consistent member of his own Aztec Camera band, singing heartfelt folk/pop tunes he predominantly wrote when he was 18 on 1983’s High Land, Hard Rain, it’s clear he’s worldly, gifted and wise beyond his years. Surely one of the finest first albums of the ’80s, Frame never followed through on his promise.
Postcards from paradise…When Roddy Frame emerged, aged 16, on Glasgow’s Postcard Records, his band was compared by label Svengali Alan Horne to the Velvet Underground. Fanciful, maybe, but Aztec Camera’s debut 45 announced a songwriter of some precocity.That said, it’s a shame the poetic rush of the Postcard period was effectively abandoned after the first album, High Land, Hard Rain (9/10) (1983), which remains a career highlight. The youthful zest in “The Boy Wonders” and “Down The Dip” can’t be faked, and if the decision to bring in Mark Knopfler to produce the follow-up, Knife (6/10) (1984) added polish, it also removed the vim from a decent set of songs.
It would have been easy to simply dismiss Aztec as a footnote to Brit pop history, seemingly innocuous such as they were. Led by the budding guitar wunderkind Roddy Frame, they set a high mark in the early to mid ‘80s with a series of impervious albums that were effortlessly entertaining but ultimately deemed somewhat slight, lacking the gravitas that made them worthy of heavy weight consideration. Thirty years on, that assessment may or may not change, but retrospect does bring a renewed appreciation for their craft that may not have fully resonated the first time around.
Aztec Camera — High Land, Hard Rain (Domino)It would be easy to write Aztec Camera off as another early 1980s MTV band, with its super sharp production, its ingratiating melodies, its high cheek-boned and floppy-haired romanticism. Listening to the debut now, 30 years later, it sounds like an artifact of some lost, pop-centric age, all gated percussion and manicured yearning. And yet, like contemporaries in the Blue Nile, Scritti Politti and Orange Juice, Aztec Camera slipped a certain amount of edge under pretty surfaces.