High Land, Hard Rain by Aztec Camera (1983)
I can remember the exact circumstances of buying the original vinyl LP as if it were yesterday, rather than 24 years ago. I'd heard Oblivious on the radio and fallen in love with it, so one lunchtime I wandered up Egham High Street, away from Strodes College (where I was studying for my 'A' levels) and went into Woolworths looking for the single. I didn't find it, but I did manage to come away with the album.
Aztec Camera: what a gloriously silly name, in that innocently pretentious way that the post-punk bands of the era had. But the music was anything but pretentious. It was glorious, jangly, full of life and optimism: even the sad songs. The guy who wrote these must have lived long and hard. But in fact Roddy Frame was just 19 when this was released and some of his songs were written a couple of years previously.
At the time I didn't read the music press, so I had no knowledge of Orange Juice or Joseph K or any of those other bands from the vibrant Scottish scene of the time. To be honest, I still haven't! And I'm sure if I had heard of them, I'd have felt some sort of obligation to prefer the more political bands, but it was Roddy's simple songs about love, loss, hope and happiness which touched something in me which hasn't let go in all this time.
It only hit me recently while listening to all the tracks properly, for the first time in about 10 years, that High Land, Hard Rain could be a concept album; it seems to me that the songs chart a single relationship over a period of months. Maybe I'm wrong, but let's have a listen to the tracks and see what we make of them.
This is the "she doesn't know I exist" song. I'm sure you've all been there - I know I have. A light, summery pop song about unrequited love. Some lovely female backing vocals and a cracking acoustic guitar solo. How does a 17 year old write something so fabulous?
The Boy Wonders
The couple finally meet and a gift is enough to win the heart of the girl. A tingly guitar riff over soft apache drums leads into a simple 2-chord verse that springs into life at the chorus. An introduction here to some of Frame's great lyrics: "We threw our hands up high, we nearly touched the sky. We clicked our heels and spat and swore we'd never let it die".
Walk Out To Winter
A great jazzy song about a maturing relationship. The young affair has lasted the summer and now they know it's serious. This song was the biggest hit from the album and deservedly so, though this is one of the songs on which the production sounds like it may have dated, especially on the electronic drum sounds. But it's saved by another great guitar solo.
The Bugle Sounds Again
My favourite song on the album and probably a contender for one of my favourite songs ever. I haven't got the faintest idea what it's about, but it's got one of the cleverest lyrics you will hear. Somehow it expresses something about an unbreakable relationship and it's achingly beautiful for that. Again, an old-fashioned fetless bass sound nearly lets it down, but I could forgive this song anything.
We Could Send Letters
My second favourite song on the album. Again, that somewhat naff-sounding fetless bass, which hasn't aged well, but it's another arrangement which saves the song. A slow guitar-based start and a melancholy atmosphere. The song's about a relationship which seems to be on the verge of collapsing due to an enforced separation, but it builds into a triumphant climax and a feeling of hope that the relationship can be saved.
Pillar To Post
An up-tempo happy-sounding pop number which belies the lyric, which seems to be telling of the imminent break-up of the relationship. A triumph of hope over reality.
Starting off as a slow ballad and picks up pace as it goes along. The 2nd verse becomes jazzy; rhythm guitar and bass-driven before a Hammond organ drives it relentlessly to a frenetic finish. A song that tells of how he has had to let the love of his life go.
Lost Outside The Tunnel
A song about loneliness. An atmospheric mourning for what has been and what could have been. A song that everyone can relate to. Awash with reverb and a spooky synth sound in the background. This is a late-night bedsit sort of song.
Back On Board
A beautiful song, led by a clean electric guitar and Hammond organ. The boy and his girl are back together. Words said have been forgiven. And in the Scottish winter there is a clean start to the relationship and a determination to make things work this time around. The final chorus with the soulful female backing vocals is definitely a highlight of this album.
Down The Dip
This is where the original album finishes. The CD release includes 3 extra tracks, from the Oblivious EP, but Down The Dip is the pefect ending to this record. So I'm going to stop here. A short song, just Roddy and his acoustic guitar looking forward to whatever it is that will happen from this point on. Riding the rollercoaster of relationships, not knowing what is around the corner, but hanging on and enoying the ride.
And that's it. Of all the albums I own (which is more than a few!) I think this is one that is irreplaceable to me. Thanks, Roddy, for the years of enjoyment.
All songs written and arranged by Roddy Frame.
Vocals, guitar, harmonica - Roddy Frame.
Bass - Campbell Owens.
Organ, piano - Bernie Clarke.
Dums, percussion - Dave Ruffy.
Produced by John Brand and Bernie Clarke.
Engineered by John Brand.