Saturday, December 21, 2013

Aztec Camera, Love (WEA Records, 1987) and Dreamland (Sire/Reprise Records, 1993)

Alongside Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche ’85 and The Blue Nile’s Hats, Aztec Camera’s 1987 album Love is one of my three favorite albums of all time.  That all three acts hail from the United Kingdom, and that two of the three hail from Scotland in particular, is probably no coincidence.  Brits have long adopted soulful American musical forms, then perfected and polished them to a fine and glowing sheen.  This is still true today, but it was especially true back in the 1980s.  (Next on my list of favorite albums, in fact, would be 1988’s Idlewild by Everything but the Girl, yet another soulfully sublime ’80s U.K. outfit.)  I’m sure these albums stand out the most to me because I was coming of age during exactly the years when they were all released, a time when the world of popular music seemed fresh and inspiring to me, a time when my world itself felt as if it were expanding rapidly and magically outward.

The Scottish singer/songwriter Roddy Frame formed Aztec Camera in 1980 when he was only sixteen.  I’ve never bothered to look up the story behind the band’s enigmatic name, preferring, as Iris DeMent once wisely sang, to “let the mystery be.”  By the time Aztec Camera’s third album Love was released in 1987, Frame was the sole remaining member of the group.  From that stage onward, he worked with various carefully selected session musicians when recording his albums.  The nine pristine songs on Love benefit greatly from this approach, most notably with the powerhouse, R&B-spiked background vocals provided by such singers as Mtume’s Tawatha Agee and the late Dan Hartman.

At this point Roddy Frame was considered a certified popstar and something of a heartthrob in his native U.K.  The album Love was crafted with this in mind and also easily transcends that image.  As the album’s title almost cheekily makes clear, the thematic through-line is obviously nothing earth-shaking, and Frame’s lyrics dutifully follow suit, equally lovestruck and lovelorn.  He’s singing to the screaming girls in the audience, after all, but he’s also singing back to the pop music of the past.  Nor does Frame’s musicianship disappoint.  His boyishly warm vocals fit the matinee idol aims, while his agile guitar playing on the swooning opener “Deep & Wide & Tall” and the funk-infused “One and One” prove that he’s way beyond some random boyband leftover.

A few of the production credits are a bit surprising, too.  For instance, David Frank, famous for his work with the ’80s pop/dance duo The System, helms two of the album’s breeziest tracks, “How Men Are” and “Paradise.”  “How Men Are” captures the album’s mood especially well (“It’s called love / And every cruelty will cloud it ... / ‘Cos it’s a lie that we have ceased to believe / We’ve said goodbye but it won’t take its leave”).  The album’s pinnacle, however, is definitely the more pensive “Working in a Goldmine,” built around a shimmering slow-drip of a groove, as Frame muses over trying to hold onto love in the fast-paced touring life of the music business:

“Waiting on the last train
Flicking through the highlights
Livin’ in a suitcase
Positively uptight ...
‘Cos I believe in your heart of gold
Automatically sunshine
Glitter, glitter everywhere
Like working in a goldmine.”

It’s appropriate, then, that Aztec Camera’s 1993 album Dreamland begins with the following words from its opening number, “Birds,” nearly a kind of clever self-parody:  “‘Hey baby baby bring your love to me’ / Repeats the radio relentlessly .... ”  Frame had mastered not only his line of work by now, but also his sense of humor about it.  (Actually, an intervening Aztec Camera album titled Stray was released in 1990, and though I do admire that one, too, I don’t find it as perfect or as streamlined as Love and Dreamland both are.)  The most significant move on Dreamland, nevertheless, is Frame’s distinctive choice of producer, the celebrated avant-garde Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who endows the album’s eleven songs with the gossamer, dreamlike soundscapes that its title promises.

Frame’s cascading guitar introduction on “Black Lucia” swerves noticeably in the direction of Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins, whose albums had begun to find quietly mainstream notoriety by the time Aztec Camera’s Dreamland came into being.  “Spanish Horses,” one of the album’s most instantly recognizable cuts, dances in another direction altogether, with Frame’s nimble acoustic guitar work taking on practically Flamenco inflections.

Sakamoto’s influence feels most palpable on a song like “Sister Ann,” underscored by a synthesized lull that pervades every layer of the music, as well as Frame’s vivid, imagistic lyrics:  “When days are just a trail of clothes / Slung over poetry and prose / A red reminder of the things I owe / A songbird silenced in the settling snow ... / I stood inside of something I’d outgrown.”  The penultimate track, “Valium Summer,” is my favorite song from Aztec Camera’s catalog (including the terrific solo albums that Roddy Frame has released under his own name since retiring his Aztec Camera moniker after 1995’s Frestonia).  “Valium Summer” is one of those rare pop songs that invites you into its melancholy spell and then never quite releases you, allowing you instead to trace the musicians’ own emotional shifts from moment to moment:

“Where the streets just sparkle silently
And leave the lovers to the night
Remembering how they came together
With such violence
Felt so good they did it twice
Too early for September songs
But much too late for love to bloom .... ”