Graded on a Curve:
Aztec Camera,
High Land, Hard Rain

While technically a band, Aztec Camera was always the creative brainchild of Scotsman Roddy Frame. On the debut LP High Land, Hard Rain, released in 1983 through Rough Trade in the UK and via Sire in the US, he made an outstanding case for himself as one of the decade’s great pop music auteurs. The album embraced intelligence and sophistication as it abandoned any pretense to a rapidly aging punk standard that spawned it, and if it isn’t perfect, 30 years after High Land, Hard Rain’s making it wears its minor flaws very gracefully.

High Land, Hard Rain opens with “Oblivious,” one of the record’s more famous tracks, though in hearing it with fresh ears after a very long absence I was struck by two elements. The first was the heights of Roddy Frame’s pop ability and at the tender age of 18; where much pop climbs to greatness in the details, “Oblivious” can be accurately assessed as an exceptionally written tune. It attains its success through sublime construction around a foundation that many well-respected songwriters twice his age had never managed to build.

The second element was Aztec Camera’s sheer level of dedication to an unabashedly erudite sensibility. This was maximal, accessible, unabashedly sophisticated Pop Music not only shirking off any tangible debt to punk but also steering far clear of the swelling tide of the synth-wave. And this relates directly to my third thought; in the bass line to “Oblivious” lays the key to so much of High Land, Hard Rain’s essence.

I’ll start by mentioning that I’m not smitten with Campbell Owens’ playing on the song, which is lightly and tastefully funk-tinged in a manner undeniably ‘80s, though my lack of regard for the bassist’s swagger hardly sinks the whole. Aztec Camera at this point functioned as a band, with Bernie Clark on keyboards and Dave Ruffy on drums/percussion alongside Owens’ bass and Frame’s vocals, guitar and harmonica, but they also operated squarely in the pop zone and lacked any significant rock gestures.

In rock and other ensemble forms, a mismatched or poorly conceived instrumental component can quickly ruin the atmosphere. But in the pop context, a factor such as the bass playing in “Oblivious” works as but one flourish emphasizing the greater import of the song. As a single element in a finely built whole, Owens’ contribution becomes easy to swallow.

And the bass is an essential aspect of the tune’s overall elaborateness. Aztec Camera can be considered as a part of the UK’s post-punk scenario (they’re included on the New Musical Express/Rough Trade cassette compilation C81, a set nearly as highly-regarded and in many ways just as remarkable as the magazine’s later C86 collection), but the far better descriptor for the outfit is indie pop. After all, their initial singles hit racks via the Postcard label, the noted home of likeminded groups such as Orange Juice and The Go-Betweens.

Postcard’s brand of indie pop saw punk vanishing to a pin-point in the rear-view mirror. Amongst the ingredients in “Oblivious”’s stew is flamenco-styled acoustic guitar (with an exquisitely rendered solo from Frame), swells of smooth organ and rich backing-vocal accents. And while the front-man’s voice is modest, it’s also well-assured and in total synch with the whole.

Aztec Camera’s whole embraced skill instead of amateurism as Frame additionally valued polish over rawness or edge. The saving grace is that the music is in large part (but not entirely) warm and organic, especially considering the studio atmospheres of its decade. And the debut’s second track, the uptempo “The Boy Wonders,” is simply a gem, deftly balancing Frame’s emotionalism with instrumental forward-motion of no small complexity.

From its glistening opening guitar line to the rousing closing backing-chant of the album’s title, it’s a small-scaled beauty of pop-architecture, though the realization of ambition is most apparent at the point where everything drops out except for Frame’s voice and a flurry of accompanying percussion from Ruffy. In short time the bass (sounding quite good here in straightforward mode) reinserts itself and the song resets before heading toward its energetic conclusion.

At this point High Land, Hard Rain settles down a bit. “Walk Out to Winter,” with its jazzy opening and lightly Bacharach-esque structure broadens Frame’s songwriting range. And the contrast between the jaunty music and the literary aspirations of the words underscores the lyricist’s status as a budding pop-auteur of 1983.

The original filmic auteurs as promoted by the French movie-magazine Cahiers du Cinema and in the USA by critics Andrew Sarris and Eugene Archer were creating art in a unequivocally commercial medium, and it was decades before many of these directors, some after their deaths, became recognized not as mere entertainers in a scenario of art-by-committee but as full-blown creators with a full-blown artistic vision.

There was no such delay for the latter-day auteurs in the UK pop music field (e.g. Costello, Joe Jackson, Difford & Tilbrook of Squeeze, Lawrence of Felt, and let us not forget Morrissey) but their art serves a similar duality, being suitably intricate for those requiring that level of engagement and simultaneously creating no conflict with the direct but often very casual appreciation that inspires chart success (and weeks-long theater engagements.)

While pop music auteurs span all the way back to Irving Berlin and the Tin Pan Alley, Aztec Camera’s stylistic reach rarely extends beyond the 1960s, though Frame consistently avoids falling into any sort of retro vibe. However, this doesn’t stop “The Bugle Sounds Again” from radiating the confidence and sheer tunefulness found in ‘60s matinee pop stardom. In depth as well as avoidance of cliché (if not necessarily sonically), with Frame’s lyrics unwinding as substantively greater than the norm, the song is remindful of The Walker Brothers.

But I should reemphasize that if ‘60s influenced, Aztec Camera’s sound belongs very much to its decade of origin, and indeed, sometimes to its detriment. The biggest culprit is one familiar to many ‘80s records, namely synthetic drums, an element that burdens “Walk Out to Winter” and side one’s closer “We Could Send Letters.”

Along with the obligatory b-sides and 12-inch mixes, Domino’s two disc anniversary edition allows for a few glimpses less burdened by these period trappings, an alternate version of “Walk Out to Winter” in particular. Surely welcome for longtime champions of the LP, these additions are also not the record this auteur and his associates made.

Perhaps the best compliment I can bestow upon High Land, Hard Rain is that it easily survives these limiting aspects, with some of these qualities actually becoming part of the record’s appeal. This situation applies to “Pillar to Post” (on both the album and original single versions included in this package), the beginning of the track so bouncily mainstream it could’ve provided the theme to a sitcom of its era.

Think The New Odd Couple or Bosom Buddies (if Billy Joel had never penned “My Life,” anyway.) At first off-putting (to these ears, anyway), the song’s jangly funk moves along with such vibrant elegance that when the motif returns at 2:35, it’s suddenly completely welcome. And High Land, Hard Rain is often celebrated for “We Could Send Letters,” “Walk Out to Winter” and definitely for “Oblivious,” but getting reacquainted with the LP revealed the strengths encompassed on its second side.

“Pillar to Post” sets the stage quite nicely, but it’s the slow-build of the appropriately titled “Release” that locates the disc’s high gear as it moves from quiet piano-bar ambiance to crisp samba (as the vocalist name-checks Keats) and then kicks it up considerably to deliver an organ-soaked rave-up finale and in less than four tidy minutes (plus with an abrupt fade-out of its conclusion attached).

From there, “Lost Outside the Tunnel” is just superb mid-tempo indie pop strumming that’s followed by the outstanding “Back on Board.” This track examines a decidedly blue-eyed soul locale at length, capping it off with some of Frame’s pleasant harmonica blowing and lending it backing vocals that could very likely get a hat-tip from Van Dyke Parks (the mood is similar to moments from that great pop-auteur’s Discover America.)

And it blends directly into closer “Down the Dip,” which features only the leader’s vocals and sturdy acoustic. After nine songs of such splendor, the spare intensity is fitting as a capper, and it reveals Frame as a singer of considerable power if not great range. The impact of “Down the Dip” is also somewhat folky, but it largely connects like a guy who knows his tunes are his strongest asset.

Of the added material (available as a download with the purchase of the vinyl), the most interesting selections have been previously available for some time, such as the oddly rockabilly situated “Queen’s Tattoos,” which served as the b-side for the “Pillar to Post” 45, the quite strong “Orchid Girl,” originally the flip to “Oblivious,” and the surprisingly clamorous “Set the Killing Free,” the back-end to the “Walk Out to Winter” 7-inch. There’s also a bunch of sessions, versions and remixes to entice old fans and newbies alike.

But the meat of the matter is High Land, Hard Rain’s original track-listing, ten songs that have aged surprisingly well. The grade below is awarded to those cuts (the bonuses are ultimately just extra credit), for they comprise a record that many to this day consider Roddy Frame’s finest hour. Its purchase for blooming pop scholars (and not just of the indie variety) is downright essential.

GRADED ON A  CURVE:
A

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