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Aztec Camera’s five albums for the WEA label are being compiled in a massive nine disc box set 'Backwards and Forwards', with four discs of extras! But even though he enjoys it, Tommy Gunnarsson misses their amazing debut album, 'High Land, Hard Rain'.
Aztec Camera’s five albums for the WEA label are being compiled in this massive nine disc box set, with four discs of extras! But even though he enjoys it, Tommy Gunnarsson misses that amazing debut album...
I remember sitting in the car with my family on our way to the beach in the south of Sweden in the summer of 1988. The radio was on, as always, and the show 'Sommartoppen' was airing, where the audience voted for their current favourite songs every week, forming a summer hit parade of sorts. This week, one of the songs they could vote for was ‘Somewhere In My Heart’ and I instantly liked it. I had no idea who the artist was, but the didn’t matter. Later on, I learned that the band was called Aztec Camera, and that it wasn’t in fact a band, but rather a solo vehicle for Roddy Frame.
Years later, I was in Oslo with my parents, and we happened to pass a shop selling second-hand comics and records. I managed to convince them that I needed a few minutes in there, and while they agreed, I promised to keep it as short as possible. So, I attacked the first crate of 7” singles I saw, and suddenly found a single by Aztec Camera, but it looked way older than the ones I had previously seen. Postcard Records. Nope, never heard of it. But it looked cool, and it was just 20 Norwegian kronor (approx. £2), so I bought it. And I’m really happy that I did; the single was 'Just Like Gold”' Roddy’s very first release, and it’s now quite hard to get hold of. Since then, I have been exploring more of Aztec’s back catalogue, and if you haven’t already, this new box set is just the thing for you!
This nine CD box set consists of the five albums Roddy recorded for major label WEA from 1984’s ‘Knife’ to 1995’s ‘Frestonia’, adding four discs of bonus material including live shows, B-sides and various rarities. Sadly, the band’s brilliant debut album, ‘High Land, Hard Rain’, isn’t featured here, as it was released on Rough Trade. There are however some of the songs released prior to them signing to WEA such as ‘We Could Send Letters’ and ‘Walk Out To Winter’ included in the live shows.
The box set kicks off, quite unsurprisingly, with the first WEA album, ‘Knife’, which, more surprisingly was produced by Mark Knopfler at a time when Dire Straits was at their absolute peak, at least commercially. Apparently, Roddy had been listening a lot to another Knopfler-produced album, Bob Dylan’s “Infidels” (1983) while staying in the US. Frame enjoyed it so much that he decided to get Mark to produce the second Aztec Camera album as well, writing songs that he thought would suit the iconic guitarist. The album released in September 1984, is widely regarded as one of the band’s best, while the production does sound a bit dated sometimes, with keyboards dominating the sound every now and then. The lead single off the album ‘All I Need Is Everything’ is backed with a much less enthusiastic version of ‘Jump’ than Van Halen’s original recording. Available as a bonus track on this disc in a special single version, which was two minutes shorter than the album version (both versions are also on this disc).
After ‘Knife’, it would take almost three years before Roddy released another album, ‘Love’ (1987). This time Frame worked with multiple producers, among them Tommy LiPuma who had previously worked with Miles Davis and Paul McCartney among others and Russ Titelman, known for his work with names like Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton. Listening to the album now, there’s no doubt that it was recorded in 1987, as once again the production feels dated at times. There are some great songs here too, among them the aforementioned ‘Somewhere In My Heart’, which is also the band’s biggest hit. Later on, Roddy explained that he wanted to mix the new electronic sounds of New York at the time and pop music and that he listened quite a lot to hip hop. Maybe the latter influence isn’t that audible on the album, but it’s a lot more influenced by the US sounds than the UK, that’s for sure.
Fourth album, ‘Stray’ was released in 1990 and this time Roddy decided to co-produce himself alongside with Eric Calvi. The sound is now far less influenced by US soul music and it feels like he rediscovered the UK music scene while making this record. That considered, at the same time it’s Frame’s most diverse effort of all, I would say. ‘The Crying Scene’ might just as well be a track from ‘Knife’, and on ‘Good Morning Britain’ he worked with Mick Jones from The Clash who was by then playing with his band Big Audio Dynamite, the song sounds quite a lot like them, too. Some critics hold this as his second-best album after the debut and they might very well be on to something.
‘Dreamland’ came out in 1993 and was co-produced by Roddy and Ryuichi Sakamoto, famed for Yellow Magic Orchestra among other projects. The opening track ‘Birds’ bears clear signs of being produced in the early 90s, with its then-trendy baggy drum sound and keyboard flourishes and even though Sakamoto’s production does get in the way of Roddy’s tunes sometimes, there are some nice songs on here. As usual the singles ‘Spanish Horses’ and ‘Dream Sweet Dreams’ are both among the best here, if you ask me.
The last album released under the Aztec Camera moniker was 1995’s ‘Frestonia’ and it was also the least successful of their albums, peaking at #100 in the UK. Prior to then the group’s albums had been fairly successful, all of them reaching the Top 30. For the recording of the LP Roddy teamed up with classic producer duo Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (Madness, Morrissey etc). Listening back now, I sometimes get the feeling I’m listening to a mid-90s Crowded House album, listen to the sole single ‘Sun’ if you want to know what I mean. It’s far from his best to be honest, so it comes as no surprise that it didn’t do better than that its poor chart showing .
After listening to all the WEA albums in a row, I realize that they are all kind of flawed with the dated productions. Most of the time you can hear almost exactly what year it was recorded, ‘Frestonia’ excepted, which could just as well be recorded today. But hey, I’m not one to turn down some music nostalgia, even thought this might be a tad too much at times.
What about the rest of the box set, then? The album discs are all completed with bonus tracks taken from that period, often consisting of single B-sides, remixes or live tracks. The first bonus disc, ‘In Concert 1984’ consists of live tracks recorded in front of enthusiastic fans in Glasgow and London back in October of that year and as I mentioned earlier, there are quite a few tracks from the debut album present, along with a bunch from ‘Knife’ including ‘All I Need Is Everything’ plus ‘Backwards And Forwards’. The Glasgow set was previously available on the promo only 1985 LP ‘Live From Scotland’ and the London tracks were all released as B-sides to the singles ‘Still On Fire’ and ‘Backwards And Forwards’ in 1984 and 1985.
The second bonus discs is entitled ‘Remixed, B-sides and Live 1986-1988’ and I would say that the title says it all, really. Featuring remixes of the singles “Somewhere In My Heart’, ‘Deep & Wide & Tall’ and ‘Working In A Goldmine’ are present plus live recordings and an interview with Roddy, originally released on a promotional 12” single of ‘Somewhere In My Heart’.
The third bonus disc ‘Remixes, Rarities & Live 1990’ is quite similar in theme to the second one featuring seven versions of ‘Good Morning Britain’, including a 1990 live recording and remixes by Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim and producer Julian Mendelsohn. A live recording of ‘Consolation Prize’ by former Postcard labelmates Orange Juice featuring their frontman Edwyn Collins also appears. The main reflection after listening to this disc is: do we really need a bunch of dance remixes of ‘Good Morning Britain’? If you ask me, the answer is definitely no.
The fourth and final bonus disc is another live show, ‘Live at Ronnie Scott’s’ recorded in London on 23rd June 1991, with Gary Sanctuary joining Roddy on piano and saxophone. The gig mostly focuses on material from ‘Stray’, but also older tunes like ‘Mattress of Wire’ and songs later to be tracked for ‘Dreamland’. These recordings have been previously released as B-sides on the ‘Spanish Horses’ and ‘Dream Sweet Dreams’ singles from ‘Dreamland’ and is a great example of the acoustic and stripped-down version of Aztec Camera.
The booklet is, as always when it comes to Cherry Red’s releases very informative and looks great, with lots of photos and record sleeves and a lengthy career-spanning essay by Tim Barr. All in all, this is a splendid exhibition of the pop genius that is Roddy Frame, but I must confess – I do miss ‘High Land, Hard Rain’, because let’s make it clear: he never managed to record another album as amazing as his first one. But still, there are plenty of nuggets among these nine discs!
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