Roddy Frame’s songwriting feels like an effortless extension of his restless internal monologue. From the career-defining arc of his band Aztec Camera through the many studio albums he’s released under his given name, the starry-eyed songwriter has assembled a vast catalog of honest, open-hearted love songs. Just 17 years old when he released Aztec’s debut single “Just Like Gold,” Frame emerged fully-formed, an indie poet laureate and brilliant instrumentalist, somehow Morrissey and Johnny Marr as one. The 1981 single was a natural fit for Postcard Records, where acts like Josef K and Orange Juice helped recast post-industrial Glasgow as a bookish, art school outpost ready-made for youthful dreaming. With its jangly, jazz-inflected chords and soaring, larger-than-life chorus, the single’s B-side, “We Could Send Letters,” felt like a naked defense of everything fun and pure about pop music, couched in a delightful complexity. The track later appeared on C81, the compilation series from NME and Rough Trade Records, and the infamous London label went on to release Aztec Camera’s full-length debut, High Land, Hard Rain, in 1983. Such was the start of one of the more promising careers in U.K. indie history, which included gushing profiles in NME and Melody Maker, multiple appearances on the beloved performance series Top of the Pops, and a multi-album deal with Warner-Elektra-Atlantic.
While Aztec’s beginnings on Postcard and Rough Trade have been fairly well-documented, with elaborate reissues and reunion tours to mark the 30th anniversary of the band’s debut album, Frame’s move to WEA feels like an important second chapter, one that’s remained largely underexplored in coverage of the band. Backwards and Forwards (The WEA Recordings 1984-1995) amends this historical oversight, shedding light on Frame’s wildly inventive mid-to-late career. The 9-disc, 112-song collection—which follows the songwriter from his sophomore album, Knife, through his decision to retire the Aztec Camera moniker in 1995—offers a portrait of the artist as a committed experimentalist. From his dizzying forays into lounge, sophistipop, and electronica to collaborations with Mick Jones, Edwyn Collins, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Backward and Forwards complicates assumptions about Frame’s breakthrough success, revealing the songwriter as a force in constant motion.
His major label debut, 1984’s Knife, follows Frame in unexpected directions that break with the indie ethos of High Land, Hard Rain. Produced by Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, the release feels like a send-up to anyone who expected Aztec to become jangle-pop superstars. Instead, Frame explores pop songwriting by way of its roots in American soul and R&B, with detours through the kind of sappy, DX7-drenched pop ballads so inescapable in the early ‘80s. A New Wave throwback by way of Elvis Costello, “Just Like the USA,” trades the colder elements of British post-punk for an earnest attempt at feel-good Americana—one that, in true Costello fashion, pokes fun at American exceptionalism in the chorus. Others like “All I Need Is Everything” and “Backwards And Forwards” expand on Aztec’s palette with the kind of synth flourishes and drum machine clatter that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Peter Gabriel record. It’s a broad attempt to emphasize the pining, lovesick aspects of Frame’s songwriting, now wrapped in sleeker packaging.
Knife would be the first in a series of Aztec Camera releases that cribbed sounds from mainstream pop music, as Frame refracted his sincere approach to songwriting through new trends in adult contemporary. Love, his third studio album and second with WEA, largely abandons Frame’s scrappy acoustic strumming in favor of slower synth-pop and a newfound attention to craft. A tasteful Quiet Storm ballad, “How Men Are” recasts Frame as a sensitive crooner with insight on male chauvinism. Like plenty of Frame’s contemporaries in the late 1980s, the song feels like a self-conscious attempt to evoke timelessness and a sense of maturity. Frame’s lyrics deal mostly in abstraction, using the language of pop to achieve a heartfelt universalism.
Times change, and Frame’s success with sophistipop would not outlast his evolving taste. Three years after 1987’s Love, Frame returned with Stray, a collection of nine tracks largely guided by the vocalist’s propulsive guitar. Recorded in Wales at Rockfield Studios, the album feels uniquely nostalgic for the rock and jazz records that informed Aztec Camera from the start. Frame recruited The Clash’s Mick Jones for the joint single “Good Morning Britain,” a rock-radio anthem that took aim at Margaret Thatcher and England’s historically domineering relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. The loutish single peaked at No. 19 on the U.K. music charts, but always felt out of place from the mouth of an artist otherwise so committed to introspection.
Despite the album’s stylistic inconsistencies, Stray was proof that Frame was still at the height of his celebrity, and after less than a year on the road in support of the album, he was ready to return to the studio—this time with Ryuichi Sakamoto. The musicians first crossed paths in Ibiza before reconnecting at a 1991 performance in London, and later decamped to New York to begin working on the followup to Stray. “I consciously tried to hand over the reins a bit,” Frame told The Scotsman in 1999. “It kind of backfired in a way, I suppose, because he wanted to make a record that sounded like High Land, Hard Rain and I wanted to make one that sounded like Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”
The resulting release, 1993’s Dreamland, departs from the swaggering politics of Stray and introduces elements of trip-hop and electronica. While much of this influence likely came from Sakamoto, whose solo albums were flush with similar textures throughout the early ‘90s, Frame remains an intrepid lyricist unafraid to take his ballads into uncharted territory. On “Birds,” Frame steers clear of clumsy Madchester psychedelia in favor of a simple love song just as light as his teenage material. “How sweet to fly, to touch the sky/To feel in the flow, like the one who glides there,” he sings over icy synths in the hook. As much as the album aspires to keep up with changing times, it’s Frame’s persistent melancholia that shines through in its strongest moments.
Dreamland isn’t completely devoid of the indie rock arrangements that characterized earlier Aztec Camera releases, and even its most experimental tendencies feel firmly at home within the band’s extended catalog. For every song like “Birds” or “Vertigo,” there’s a bluesy “Safe in Sorrow” or “Black Lucia” that emphasizes Frame’s storytelling ability over any investment in electronic experimentalism. Less musically adventurous than its predecessor, Aztec’s 1995 album Frestonia is strongest in its softest moments, trading the sonic ambition of Dreamland for a classic approach to solo songwriting. Tracks like “Crazy” and “On The Avenue” are delicate and refined, with Frame finding peace where he once seemed so uneasy. While the album would remain among the band’s least successful commercially, peaking at No. 100 on the U.K. music charts without a charting single, Frestonia shows a songwriter content with his place in the universe, free from the anxieties of youth.
This freedom has long been the driving force behind Aztec Camera’s live shows, where Frame seems to cherish the opportunity to look back on his earlier music. Live recordings included with the collection reveal how thrilling this music sounded on stage; the care and joy with which Frame cues up a fan favorite like “Oblivious,” or banters on about the profound sadness of his song “Backwards and Forwards” show that even the most comprehensive collection of studio releases still fails to capture the true dynamism of Frame in his prime. Nine discs and nearly a hundred songs later, you still can’t help but wonder how much still never made it to tape.
Buy: Rough Trade
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