Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Old music: Aztec Camera's Knife (1984)

Whoo boy, talk about misunderstood.

Well, Roddy Frame has to be given some slack because he was only twenty years young when he was reacting to a wealth of buzz and popularity in the aftermath of his band's Britain-captivating debut album.

And who wouldn't freak out and just make one of the most personal and fun albums of their career — especially when you were thrown into the studio with ridiculous expectations, a nearly bottomless budget and an established, certified 'rock and roll god' completely out of touch with where you were coming from (hi, Mark Knopfler) acting as producer?

Well, let's just get this out of the way right now: unlike my previous highlights in this context, this album is not an amazing five star-worthy affair that will please all audiences across the board.

Nope. That's just not this album.

But is it an irreproachably strong record that received an unfair critical beat down at the time of its release and has yet to receive a true reassessment that removes the hype?

Yes. Wholeheartedly.

If I were to grade the album on my usual scale of one to five stars, it would probably receive an incredibly strong:
...or a solid:
But, leaving grades aside, this album is just downright enjoyable. It's pure pop. Produced, overwrought, slickly played and cooked to perfection with one or two too many chefs in the kitchen. But the songs are absolutely stunning, despite presentation.

So, what really matters here is the presentation.

And it is flawed.

Bottom line.

It just is.

It certainly wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that — HEY, WAIT A SECOND, MARK KNOPFLER IS A TERRIBLE CHOICE AS A PRODUCER FOR AN AZTEC CAMERA RECORD!

But, despite that completely mismatched big overproduced slickness and high profile reputation that Knopfler brought to the studio with him, Roddy Frame plays these songs like he's absolutely sure they're the best he's ever written — and, indeed, some of them really are.

'Still on Fire' kicks things off and with it's pseudo-funky rhythm guitar and accentuated percussion, it's obviously an attempt to rewrite 'Oblivious' but that doesn't matter because it's easily one of the great lost classics of the new wave singles. Moving into an obtuse simile, 'Just Like the USA' is one point where I think the Roddy/Elvis Costello comparisons are valid. But even that seems unfair because the song tackles something so personal and so universal and is ultimately all heart, even though it puts up the façade of being the opposite. And that is a strangely foreshadowing dynamic that is explored in great detail with 'Head is Happy (Heart's Insane).' A horn-accented strummer explores the extremely human struggle between the mind's message and the heart's wants. Really fantastic stuff.

Side two kicks off with 'All I Need is Everything' (video edit, album version)and the song itself is practically a microcosm of the overproduction of the album trying to drown out the eccentricities of the band's songs. Starting with an admittedly cheesy synth buildup, when the song actually gets going, it's extremely hard to dislike. The perfectly descriptive lyrics unfold into the incredible (and nearly anthemic) chorus. While the keyboards could have been left out and the song's effect would have been equal, the last two minutes is a showcase for the band to expose the musical qualities that are lurking beneath the tunes. All mood and ambience, it's a moment for Roddy to take a rare solo that is equal parts expressive and complimentary and the thing that sticks out the most about it is how well it balances with the rest of the song. It almost feels like the band was saying, 'Hey this was a great pop song, but how about we end it sounding like the Durutti Column?' Wondrous.

'Backwards and Forwards' and 'The Birth of the True' are the two songs most like any previous Aztec Camera material. And they are appropriately excellent. The album closes with the nine-minute title track that streches itself out into a meditative epic. It's gotten a bad rap over the years, but if you remove the expectation of Aztec Camera as a three or four minute pop song band, it's surpsringly effecting and well-done. Imagine the same song on a Modern English album and you might start to see my point.

It had pretty standard cartoony new wave era cover art (this is the American issue on Sire):

And the back:

The inner sleeve was well done, with full photos of the band and complete reprinted lyrics (which, with this album, you'll want to follow along with; it's worth it):

And the back of the inner sleeve:

And finally, the labels. Notice the guitar sketch thing on side one; a larger scale version of that same sketch appears on top of a white background for the 'Oblivious' 12" single:

The British papers tore it to shreds. Roddy Frame was supposed to use keyboards sparingly, if at all. He was not supposed to have any songs that were longer than four-and-a-half minutes (at the absolute most) and his arrangements were supposed to be cutting edge DIY spareness, not this moody MOR crap.

Maybe if I were there at the time and had considered him to be one of the saviours of pop music, I'd have been upset as well. But that seems unlikely because the songs are just that good. Sure, High Land Hard Rain is (deservedly) everyone's favorite Aztec Camera album and it (again, deservedly) gets five stars across the board.

But I've seen way too many recommendations for just the first album and nothing else. And furthermore, way too many collections that have the first album and nothing else.

Is Knife better than High Land Hard Rain? No.

Is it Aztec Camera's second best album? Without question.

I've always been of the opinion that, while Knife isn't Roddy Frame's best work, it is his most representative. When you consider the MOR, white boy lite soul that would dominate their secondary post-High Land catalogue (a/k/a the rest of Roddy Frame's career), Knife seems to be the best album Aztec Camera made in that mode. And I would definitely say you'd like it if you liked High Land Hard Rain.

It definitely deserves a reassessment, because even though I haven't been listening to it since 1984, in the relatively short time that I've been familiar with it, it just seems to get better with each listen.

And that easily earns it a seal of approval:

Good stuff. And a perfect example of how something can sound totally of its time, but its content and subject matter can push it outside of those limitations.


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