Friday, 8 March 2013

Albums for Life: Joint 40: Aztec Camera: High Land, Hard Rain/Roddy Frame: Surf

When I was young the radio played just for me
It saved me...
Tuning out the darkness, turning on the dawn
If life was like the songs I'd surf across the curved horizon
Forget her and be gone...

Is it ok to expect more from life than is reasonable?
I was as taken as the rest by the boy wonder's coltish confidence when he initially exploded onto the scene in 1983 with Aztec Camera and 'High Land, Hard Rain'. Let's forgive the clunky drum sound, there were classic melodic wonders within, like 'Oblivious' and 'Walk Out to Winter'. But with 'We Could Send Letters' there was a song that contained real magic. The melodies lifted and ascended the heartache, as minor verse became major chorus 'I found some blood I wasn't meant to find' then the key lifted to yet another, better chorus, 'just close your eyes again, until these things get better". And then there was that brilliant guitar solo...
The song contains everything that I initially loved about Roddy; the luster of youth was tempered with a wisdom and musical dexterity that belied his age. The quirks of this song in particular still remind me of the swoonsome dynamics of Prefab's debut. 'High Land, Hard Rain' promised so much that Roddy was surely doomed to disappoint us. And... he didn't disappoint. Sure, there were great moments of shiny pop along the way, the odd melting ballad, but they were like letters home, infrequent and insubstantial, Roddy never really felt present.We waited long for his return, for an album that would solidify the early promise. Maybe it was a production thing. Mark Knopfler attempted gravitas with 'Knife', replacing the debut's charmingly direct indie folk with sonorous keyboards, burdening the songs with a bleeding obvious, lumpy ambience. Double chin rock; there were no surprises anymore... 'Love' brought bright, all too perfect pop that was as predictable as its success. 'Frestonia' however was a fine return to form with some real highlights. 'On the Avenue' was a beauty and yet... it still sounded a bit like Roddy singing a Dire Straits song to me... What had happened to the quirky boy wonder? Well, I guess he just got older. I felt a bit like a parent looking wistfully at baby photos in a wallet; wishing that the kid was still cute and cumbersome; wishing that I could still care for him. There was no need to protect Roddy anymore; he'd grown into a consummate musician; proficient and 'complete'. I think that we often crave vulnerability in our heroes; it helps us to invest our hopes in them, they become our 'duty of care' part of that strange commitment and connection. I didn't feel a part of his world anymore. I kept apace with the solo albums but still remained unmoved. Roddy obviously had a great record collection for reference, each album showcasing great taste, and yet he seemed content just sitting pretty...

And then in 2002 he reigned everything in for 'Surf' when Roddy downsized to just a voice and an acoustic. Released ironically on the Redemption label, it was a chocolate box of lovely songs, beautifully presented, and yet... once you'd sampled the apparent plainness of Surf's soft center it was tempting to crave the odd hard centre to test your teeth.
Then came 'Western Skies'. I'm unsure as to what happened there; the songs are still acoustically based but what drums there are are strangely prominent in the mix. It's this odd balance that keeps you leaning in, engaging. So, I chose 'Western Skies' as my favourite Roddy album, but then... I put 'Surf' on again and, as Oscar said 'only a fool cannot change his mind'. I wasn't just listening, Surf's caramel pleasures just wrapped around me, I was involved again. Production values were as unimportant as the video, the quiff or the new leather jacket; it was all about the power of the song and the charm of the performance again. Roddy had sent letters, but here he was, back in the room with me. The once wide eyed boy wonder had returned, squinting, stubbly, worldly, a prodigal son; showing  his scars, owning his disappointments, recognizing that regrets are as inevitable as victories, happy to holler that hope and redemption are options and possibilities that need to be celebrated with grace and good cheer. All roads lead to home they say and, for me, 'Surf' is a kind of homecoming; a return to high land.
Sure: the boy done good...


  1. Another Too low cry from me.

    Great summary although I think you are a tad harsh on Knife and missed off the chaotic jumble that is Stray which has beautiful ballads , classic pop and protest songs all thrown into the mix and a title track among the most beautiful bits of music he has written

    1. You're probably right David; I have high expectations of my musical heroes, though the bar inevitably set too high...

  2. A lovely written piece.My Roddy and band choices are somewhat higher. You write that production doesn't matter and it's all about the song.I couldn't agree more, that's why I went for 'Love'. It's dated very badly but those songs still shine. There's news that a new album might appear later in the year.

  3. Thanks Phil. I meant that, as 'Surf' was so simply presented the production wasn't an issue; as it had been for me with a couple of the earlier albums. Here there were no distractions; just the fantastic collection of songs and Roddy's voice focussed to the fore, singing the best I've ever heard him.
    I look forward to the new album; let's hope that it's not released the same week as 'In Cassidy's Care'. We always seem to synchronize releases badly...