Donimo Records Re-Releases Aztec Camera’s Essential Album High Land, Hard Rain
It’s 2014 and we are embarking on some critical 30th anniversary anniversaries. Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward, Echo and the Bunnymen’s Porcupine, and The Smith’s self-titled were just a few albums to dominate the European alternative markets.
This year, Domino Records is focusing on a 30th anniversary release from a Scottish band who made quite a splash in 1983. Wait…1983? Yes, the release of High Land, Hard Rain is actually 31 years old. So Domino is a little delayed with this release, but it no less makes this album any less important to the history of New Wave and College Rock.
High Land, Hard Rain reached Number 22 in the UK charts and No. 154 on the US Billboard 200. It also jump started Roddy Frames career while making it one of the more impressive debut releases a band could make. It’s a great feat for a lead vocalist who was almost 18 years old at the time.
Aztec Camera formed in 1980. At the time, the Scottish landscape was very much immersed in the pop paradigm. Bands like the Rezillos faded away with the punk landscape and the early ‘80s introduced a completely different atmosphere of bands trying to ride on the backs of the London ‘80s alternative scene.
Roddy Frame was one who spoke eloquently but carried a big stick. And that stick was his voice.
It’s the first thing you remember when listening to an Aztec Camera song. It’s not that the music was less important, the band was conceived to let Frame’s vocals soar while their music acted more as accompaniment.
The band made their initial appearance on a Glasgow cassette compilation released by Pungent Records, a label affiliated with Fumes Fanzine.
The band’s first single came in 1981 on Postcard Records. It was a seven inch that featured the songs “Just Like Gold” and “We Could Send Letters.” The second song made it on High Land, Hard Rain (a phenomenon for a b-side to make it on a major label full length album). It showcased the band’s gentle bedroom pop antics, as swoonful sway that was every bit the definition of leisure. “Just close your eyes…,” Frame was wanting to take you away from it all.
Aztec Camera – We Could Send Letters (Live TV 1983)
Aztec Camera was a rarity and a musical antonym to the boisterous spirit of the Scottish Alternative Scene. Big Country, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and others were bands who were trying to make a louder voice than what England was posterizing, Frame just wanted to create a sound for the Bourgeoisie, using his prose like a Victorian Romantic poet. What Frame ended up doing was making something that was anti-fringe and a young kids restraint gets turned into a rebellion for the fashions of the time.
David Fricke from the Rolling Stone called it, “ten songs of anxious yearning, romantic urgency, big hurt and hard-won learning, distilled into compact dramas of buckskin-folk jangle and skewed-pop elegance.”
It’s that “buckskin-folk jangle” that sets the music apart from other bands. “The Boy Wonders” is the most evident, starting out with eclectic early folk strumming and dulcimer-like tones before the snare kicks us into a drifting rhythm of gentle hip sways and unforgettable hooks. Unlike Elvis Costello, Frame’s expression is more carefree and fun; about as carefree and fun an awkward teen can be.
For me, there is one deterrent on an otherwise perfect release. “Back On Board,” a song that blatantly focuses on the pains and triumphs of the singer. Is it Frame’s way of paying homage to Sinatra? Is it him admiring the ‘70s crooners that looked so damn cool? The song is fine until he launches into the chorus. “Get me back on board…,” he sounds like he is on a cruiseliner. More realistically, compared to everything else, it blatantly sounds like an 18 year old trying to cover an old man’s song.
The Domino release has a second CD full of rarities and mixes along with a couple of resurrected songs including “Queen’s Tattoo” (originally a CD bonus track) and “Haywire.” There is also a few remixes of their iconic song “Oblivious:” (the Colin Fairley and the Langer/Winstanley remixes). The song contains some of the most expressive acoustic jangles you will ever hear. The song is incredibly catchy while being hypnotizing as if it was built to be a hit. Contrast it with “Lost Outside the Tunnel,” where the acoustics are created to show off technicality in an incredible way. It is probably my favorite song next to “We Could Send Letters.”
Aztec Camera – Haywire
I remember when I first picked up this album in the ‘80s. It was a shop in Broad Ripple called Second Time Around. The album did not stand out as the cover art is simplistic. But like the music inside, it’s enough to catch your eye in a record bin. That’s what it did to me. Although it was instant gratification to an extent, it took years for me to realize the album’s full potential. Once you can understand all angles of what Frame is doing, you won’t look back.
Today, I find Frame’s later work to be more satisfying. On an album like Frestonia, Frame’s age caught up to his talent and he takes full advantage of it with smooth and expressive vocals. It also could be the help of a revised backing band. All in all, the experience wears on Frame very well.
It does not discern the fact that High Land, Hard Rain is an album that is very much a sign of the times that influenced many musicians to take a lighter, less amplified and synthesized approach to their music.