Ok, so as a huge Aztec Camera fanatic, I have absolutely no excuse for not having every single Roddy Frame album within days of its respective release. But, being as the North Star and Western Skies are still import only, I was less than enthusiastic about paying those hefty import prices right away. I know, I know... my fandom should've overcome such seemingly irrelevant things as pricetag, but a budget is a budget, bottom line. Well, I recently completed my catalogue of his three solo albums, so here are some extended thoughts on each....
The North Star (1998)
After Frestonia's uncharacteristic and misguided attempts at adult contempo soft rock radio stardom, the North Star is like the next proper Aztec Camera album after Dreamland. It's the same sort of midtempo jangle rock, but the songs here are actually considered as full pieces of artistic representation. In other words, Roddy actually sounds like he cares about what the session players are doing with his songs this time around. And that's the weird thing here: the songs are pretty much in the same vein as Frestonia, but the band plays them here like they actually matter. Frestonia had some excellent tunes, but they were drown out by schlock and awful overplaying. On the North Star, the songs are noticeably toned down and played in the purposely low-key mode that Roddy seems to have finally come to the realization that his songs should be played in all the time. It's a genius move. The tunes are of the middle calibre of Roddy Frame's accuracy. Consistently good compared to anyone else, but sort of crowd-pleasing and unsurprisingly adequate for longtime fans. But, because of the newly rediscovered sparse 'as it is' presentation of the songs, it sounds like a mini-revelation. Like Roddy's just gotten over his entire bout with A&R people and producers for good and this album was the first thing he was able to do free of their (in hindsight) negative influence. The downplaying of everything here is an all around plus. For the first time in several albums, Roddy genuinely sounds like he's having fun and that makes for fun listens even on songs that aren't that interesting. This shines through in the pronounced optimism of the material, especially on the single 'Reason for Living.' As far as other highlights, the one-two combo of the album's opening tracks ('Back to the One' and the title track) is just about as good as it gets here. Jangly, catchy and completely sincere, both songs are exemplary of Roddy Frame at his best. It's just one of those undeniably strong albums that isn't an out-and-out masterpiece, but whose enduring melodies and modest spirit make the twentieth listen infinitely better than the first or second. Definitely a feel good album. And the sparse closing track ('Hymn to Grace') is a great preview for his next move.
Well, here it is. Easily his best work since Stray and Dreamland (and maybe even since Knife). It was Roddy's first true 'solo' album, as he performed everything you hear. He wrote the songs, he sang the words and he played the acoustic guitar. Isn't this what all those stuffy NME folks would've loved to have all of their readers believe he was capable of back in 1984? Make no mistake, friends, I friggin' love this album like few other things. The pronounced and consistent love of music that is addressed at several points throughout the album's lyrics is just awesome and I can completely relate because I internalize music to an unhealthy degree, so it's nice to hear my feelings vaguely mirrored in such an intimate, immediately resounding setting. But ignoring all that highfalutin heady hogwash, these are truly some of Roddy's best tunes ever. Stripped down to their barest of essentials, the melodies flourish and the performances feel like near perfection. His skills as a guitarist and captivating singer are finally given the spotlight they deserved all along and the record is all the better for it. A song like 'I Can't Start Now' is not only a beautifully aching ballad, but a true listen and consideration of the lyrics reveals Roddy at arguably his peak. There is an unmistakable sense to the whole thing of personal revelation. And I know it was completely cliche for the 'all acoustic' album to indicate some sort of (perhaps forced) poignancy by 2002, but Roddy actually pulls it off with Surf (even though I truly doubt his integrity would have let him subscribe to such a philosophy by this point; perhaps further enhancing the album's seemingly unending earnest appeal). I can't say enough good about it, honestly. It's just wonderful music from a musician that feels like he has fulfilled his complete potential for the first time in over a decade. Every song here is damn near perfect and fans of heartfelt music will have a hard time not loving it. The more I listen to it, the more I fall in love with it. Exceptional.
Western Skies (2006)
That subtle, but unmistakable, grin that graces the cover art is actually very representative of this album and, in the bigger picture, where Roddy Frame has arrived at as a singer and songwriter. He was 42 when Western Skies was released and, despite his voice still awesomely sounding like 22, with the pronounced wrinkles and slight shades of grey hair, he finally looks like something: a wise elder statesman that can just bang out some modest little genuine tunes for his modest little genuine fanbase every two or three years. Make no mistakes, Western Skies is a no nonsense affair. Great tunes, humbly presented and no real surprises, but good lord, is it satisfying as hell for a longtime fan. Sparse, three or four piece arrangements are par for the course here and the tunes overall may not even be his best, but damned if they don't all sound great right away. The presentation is perhaps the most appropriate ever for a Roddy Frame-performed album. There is one downright surprise here: 'Marble Arch' is a straight bossa nova tune. And it's awesome. Completely unexpected and surprisingly on the mark, I love it wholly. Elsewhere, the title track is the sort of yearning minor key alt-pop tune that sounds exactly like the sort of thing Roddy should be doing at this point, while the mini-epic 'Rock God' is probably the most ambitious he's been in quite some time. Truly, there's not a bad song in the bunch and even though it may not be his most diverse material, it's the sort of jangly modern update of the classic Aztec Camera sound that transcends expectations and feels like the midlife revelation that it probably is. It often sounds like the most content album he's ever made. Flippin' satisfying as all get-out.
EDIT: Free outtakes from the album! Holy piss, he loves me as much as I love him!
And there it is. Probably infamous for his inconsistency by the time he released the North Star, I find it more than a little ironic that he waited until he was releasing albums under his own name to get completely and truly dependable. Aztec Camera's catalogue is notoriously up and down, to the point that, by the time he released the North Star, nobody but the hardest of hardcore were paying any attention. And that's a shame because the (so far) three albums he's released under his own name have been —maybe a bit surprisingly— undeniably good and consistent. By this point, after hearing and truly assessing these albums in the grand scheme of Roddy Frame, the same guy that did all those Aztec Camera albums, they are nothing like a musician simply going through the motions. On the contrary, these albums are the work of a musician that has truly found inner happiness and peace as a person.
Of course, if your name is Roddy Frame, that translates to mean that, to your small and loyal fanbase, you're seemingly getting better.
Here's to a new album sometime soon.
(which is to say: new album soon, please?)