Sunday, October 15, 2006

Vinyl Tap: Aztec Camera

I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #24: 

    The cards are on the table now, and every other cliche
    Somehow fits me like a glove.
    You know that I'd be loathe to call it love...

Elvis Costello knows a thing or two about deserving left-of-the-dial artists and promising up-and-comers, from Robert Wyatt to early-day John Hiatt, who was introduced onstage once as “America’s best-kept secret.” So when Costello lavished praise upon Roddy Frame, the Scottish leader and sole mainstay of Aztec Camera, for being one of the best songwriters he had ever heard -- this after only the 1982 debut album, the superb High Land, Hard Rain -- you had to take more than a little note of this acoustically-driven and folkish pop-rock outfit, and of the finely-tuned craftsmanship of Frame's biting and biding romanticism.

By the time of the third release, the self-titled EP Aztec Camera (1985), the wunderkind Frame was also an accomplished live performer, as this five-song release attests. This collection of bipolar love songs for the bloodied but unbowed were -- except for one "mad impetuous fool"-type departure -- recorded in concert at the Dominion Theatre in London on October 16, 1984.

"The Bugle Sounds Again" may comprise the lone sliver from the debut LP, but it remains one of Frame's most richly melodic songs, couched in whisper-to-a-scream dynamics complementing the thematic restlessness and cold-feets-don't fail-me-now equivocation. The Romeo inclined toward the "nighthawk call" to "meeting after midnight like we do," is the same rambler whose fleeting notions of settling down is torn ablunder by the nagging call to "Grab that Gretsch before the truth hits town."

But then, "How come when I'm gone I get the blues?" In "Backwards and Forwards" from the too-polished Mark Knopfler-produced Knife (1984) - the rougher-edged and stronger-voiced live EP showcases Knifes' songcraft much more affectingly - the narrator seems to be swaying back again, bent to "the essence of my peers / Handshakes, hellos and golden years."

    Could completeness still appeal,
    To one who thinks what he should feel?
    And it stares me in the face,
    And holds me speechless,
    And I look back in your eyes
    And see your eyes gaze,
    See your eyes gaze into mine.

Is this the beginning -- as Aztec's second slice of Knife would put it -- of "The Birth Of The True"? As one line of this jaunty tune would aver to be ever thus: "I'd sack the world and make a second start," but moreover, in the realm of a more interpersonal affirmation: "Don't wipe your eyes over lies / Just let them shine their blue / On every whisper that welcomes the inconceivable / And the birth of the true."  

In other words, "you've got to roll with the punches / to get to what's real." Which makes the inclusion here of a cheeky studio cover of Van Halen's precious-moments ultra-romantic song of endless love, "Jump," some kind of sense. In any case, it's a bit of deadpan fun to have Frame laconically invite us all to -- decidedly lower case and strictly optional, mind you -- "jump... you might as well..." (checks his watch) "jump..." The only thing really declarative and imperative is Frame's feedback-drenced but anti-Eddie guitar solo.

Nevertheless, as Frame sings in the EP's wistful original "Mattress Of Wire," "when you speak, I still hear the fire."  That could apply to scorched-earth instrumental breaks, but it most certainly has implications for listeners of Aztec Camera. When Roddy Frame speaks - when he sings his own indelible and incandescent words and music - we always hear the fire.


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