Thursday, February 3, 2011
Aztec Camera - High Land, Hard Rain
High Land, Hard Rain (1983) ****
It seems quaint that people once considered this kind of stuff alternative rock. Roddy Frame's debut (he is, for all intents and purposes, Inca Microphone) is nothing more or less than glossy, high-quality pop-rock that is catchy, melodic, and inoffensively ready for adult contemporary stations sandwiched between John Mayer and the Cranberries. Now, now, wait don't run, Aztec Camera are much better than that, this is lushly crafted melodic pop-rock of....well, honestly not quite of the first rate (Frame's tunes aren't immediately catchy and memorable enough for that), but certainly not of the second rate, either. This got lumped into the post-punk alternative rock scene apparently by virtue of being released in 1983, in an era when over-synthed gaudy drum-machined stereotypically '80s music was all the rage, and thus Frame's rich tapestry of strummed acoustic guitars must have been quite a handsome relief to the ears. This quite young Scotsman (only 19 at the time) shows himself more adept as a guitarist than a tunesmith, as might be expected from a musical prodigy at such a tender age, but is still a bit unusual for his chosen genre of guitar pop: if he were running up the scales as a heavy metal jazz wank-off bluesman, no one would blink an eye, but Frame is an instrumental virtuoso dedicating his craftsmanship to a genre where the song is of paramount importance, not the soloing.
As for the songs, they're mostly quite good, excellent if not exactly transcendent examples of well-crafted pop. Frame swoons toward the softer side of rocky pop and the lyrics, despite displaying a mild Costello wordbite influence, dabble mostly in the hearth and fires of adolescent romance. Frame comes on like a Byron-esque romantic troubadour, his milky plantangent vocals flashing not a trace of streetwise grit, and neither do the tunes - they're all sweet, sometimes achingly bitter but always romantic. On first or even third listen, Frame hews so closely to his chosen style that the tunes all swoosh by in a big fat acoustic jangle of a blur, difficult to tell the individual songs apart all that much. It takes a few more repeated listens to hear past the stylistic uniformity to seize upon the separate tracks, and a good thing, too: of the first eight or so songs, all are to a more or lesser degree mini-masterstrokes of subtle craft and heartfelt sincerity, from the breakup aches of "We Could Send Letters," to the latin stroll of the lead single, "Oblivious," to the cheerily seasonal, "Walk Out To Winter." The album grows more inconsistent as it draws to a close, with the obnoxiously annoying chorus of "Haywire," a low point, but you get to finish the album with the king's highwayman Scottish hillbilly twangle of "Queen's Tattoos," so it doesn't end all too badly. Song for song, the album definitely falls much more on the side of good than bad, with only a small number of these thirteen truly misfiring as dull, but this is the sort of unusual (for straightforward pop) album where the overall sound and sense of songcraft is more important than the individual songs.