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Frame by Frame
from Creem, ??? 1993
by Kurt B. Reighley

Five of us are returning from a Memorial Day vacation in Provincetown, MA, crammed into a minivan with more luggage than you'd think such skinny boys could carry. Amidst the biking, dancing, and sunbathing, the only sounds we've heard all weekend are house and techno: 2 Unlimited, Liberty City, Jaydee. As we navigate through New England, traffic snarls, enticing our driver to do the same. Thump, thump, thump goes the Sound Factory mix in the tapedeck. As the pressure rises, I pass the advance cassette of Aztec Camera's Dreamland to my friend riding shotgun. Once the first notes cascade from the speakers, a collective sigh its from our weary troop. The rest of our journey - despite narrow highways, a sudden thunderstorm, and poorly-informed politic arguments - passes relatively peacefully, thanks to the music of Roddy Frame.

Roddy smiles upon hearing this adventure.

"I don't think an artist's job is just to reflect what's going on around him. I don't think that it's such a violent, chaotic hyperreality that we live in that your music should just reflect that by becoming faster and faster, harder and harder. You should try and contribute something positive. This album is really quite mellow, and if anything, I'd like people to use it as a little oasis in a violent world. I quite like the idea of someone coming home and meeting their partner after a hard day, making some spaghetti, and listening to this album, maybe listening to a little bit of Sade, then watching television and making love."

Admits Roddy, "I can see why people are having a hard time coming to grips with the record, 'cuz it's the antithesis of rock and rap." But over the course of the past decade, this Glasgow native has always followed whatever artistic path he desired under the banner of fine songwriting; his fifth and latest album continues that grand tradition. With deftly structured phrases of melody and lyric, the 11 songs of Dreamland unfold into a spacious tableau of evocative memories. But as personal as the Scotsman's tunes are, they never feel claustrophobic. Just as great works of art make a stronger impact when displayed judiciously in a large open hall, these songs contain ample sonic space to allow the impressions they create room to reverberate within the listener's psyche.

These wide aural vistas spring from Roddy's work with producer Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose Oscar-winning experience as a film composer reveals itself subtly throughout the record. Yet unlike several of Aztec Camera's other experiments with guest artists, such as Mark Knopfler and the Clash's Mick Jones, Sakamoto's contributions heighten the effects of Frame's compositions.

"I don't think he decided to put his stamp on this album," says Roddy of Ryuichi's distinctive style. "If anything, he was very protective of my identity. He wanted to make it sound like an Aztec Camera record."

And Sakamoto knew what the four previous Camera albums sounded like. When Frame politely introduced himself to the producer in Ibiza, he could hardly believe that an artist he admired so much was familiar with his own body of work. And though he was delightfully taken aback when Ryuichi agreed to produce the new record, the real surprises arose in the studio.

"I thought he'd be quite academic in his approach, like a professor of music from Tokyo University, but actually he spends a lot of his time just playing the piano or strumming a guitar. I'd come into the studio, and he'd be playing, and I'd be like, 'Wow! What was that?' and he'd say 'I don't know, I just made it up trying out this new keyboard.'"

The whole process stands in marked contrast to the last full album Frame made with an outside producer, 1984's sophomore effort Knife (also the last Aztec record to feature the original, fixed line-up). But while at the time many critics and fans grumbled with disappointment about the set of nine songs produced by Dire Straits frontman Knopfler, Roddy's attitude toward the album has mellowed with age.

"When I was working on it, I remember it was quite hard, because Mark was such a taskmaster at the time. I think he's relaxed now, but at the time he was a workaholic, and we really spent a lot of time getting that record right. He took a lot of control in terms of arrangements, and at the time it was a little bit of a struggle, but I knew that what he was going for was really, really ace. It's quite a sophisticated record for its time, actually."

Considering that the personal nature of Frame's songs provides any producer with a challenge, the set presented to Sakamoto ranks among Frame's most delicate, perhaps as a result of the way they were written more than any other factor.

"I started to write the album," begins Roddy, "and I had my eight-track set up at home, my samplers and sequencers and synthesizers. Then I was walking past a shop window, and I saw a dictaphone, and I thought, 'That's perfect for writing.' So I called up my road guy and said, 'Could you come and take all this recording equipment out of my front room, 'cuz I really want to do some writing."'

Regarded by his contemporaries as one of the finest songwriters of his generation (Elvis Costello ranked among the earliest champions of Aztec, as early as 1983), Frame's expanding body of work remains largely his own domain, virtually untouched by other artists.

"It's hard for other people to do my songs," he confesses. "Trying to get some sort of overview of them, I think my lyrical style is individual and autobiographical. The best cover version I've had was a Dutch torch singer who covered 'We Could Send Letters' with a Japanese pianist. That's probably the best I've had. She also covered 'Oblivious,' but the groove was all wrong."

Ironically, one of the tracks that first brought Frame to the attention of American audiences was his version of another musician's work: Aztec's langorous 1985 rendition of Van Halen's "Jump."

"Probably the best cover version I made," he admits. "I recently met David Lee Roth and he's great. He was the life and soul when I met him. And he said I did a really good job. But I also did a cover of 'True Colors' by Cyndi Lauper, and I didn't do such a good job on that one. But I just love that record, it's brilliant. And another one that I really like that I was thinking about covering is 'Rush, Rush' by Paul Abdul. It's got some beautiful chords in there."

Wait just a minute! A sophisticated songwriter of Frame's stature gushing over a Paula Abdul single? But not only is Roddy brave enough to vocalize his fondness for the sublime charms of such fluff, his philosophy makes a strong argument for his point.

"I had to review a bunch of records recently for a magazine. I didn't like a lot of them, but I found it hard to slag people off. I got into a fight with some people, because I was saying that Kylie Minogue [former Australian soap opera star and Britan's disco dolly answer to Madonna] and I, we have so much in common. Myself, Lou Reed, Kylie, Ice-T, Porno For Pyros... we don't get up in the morning and fix people's telephones, we go to the recording studio and sing our hearts out into a microphone and make records. People were like, 'How can you mention Kylie and the Velvet Underground in the same breath?', but they appear to be doing the same thing. And I'm sure it means a lot to her when she makes a record."

What separates Frame from the likes of Kylie and Paula in the minds of many, and the characteristic that has insured that the word "mature" will be applied to his ouevre in nine out of ten reviews from now till kingdom come, is the way in which he applies his personal vision to a greater range of scenarios and settings with each passing album. Few men since the days of Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers have elevated the love song with such consistency as Frame. Dreamland takes the process a step further, reflecting almost entirely on the world Frame saw in his travels during and after the tour for 1990's Stray. Against the background of unfamiliar environments and situations, the emotional content stands out in greater relief.

"The idea is that musicians don't see anything, you just arrive and then leave the next morning. That's quite good for a songwriter in a way, because I think if you have a snapshot, it becomes more coherent when you're writing about it. If you're going to write a song about Paris, the Eiffel Tower should feature.

"You can almost go through this record and pin down different songs to different cities. 'Black Lucia' is about Stockholm. They have a festival around Christmas time, for St. Lucia, an Italian saint - I don't know how she became transplanted to Stockhom, but that's interesting, too - and every year the schoolchildren have a parade, and they all wear their little white gowns and carry candles and walk through the old part of town singing songs. And they choose a Lucia every year, and she's supposed to be this angelic, blond-haired, blue-eyed kid - which isn't difficult to find in Stockholm. But when I was there, they had a black African girl do it, and she was Lucia, leading this parade of blonde, blue-eyed girls."

This travelog-inspired writier carried on to other songs as well. "'Vertigo' was inspired by Zurich. I was in New York, and a good friend of mine was hanging out with a Swiss man. We went out one day and climbed the Williamsburg Bridge [connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn], which I don't recommend. That's when I realized that I suffer from vertigo. The next time I saw them, they were married and living in Zurich. I went to visit, and we went up into the mountains, where they have this observation tower that everyone can go up and down, even little kids. And the lovers got to the top, but I couldn't reach it. So it was like a metaphor."

Still, even the most seasoned world traveler fails to fit in everywhere. As much as Roddy enjoys spending time in the United States, New York and Boston please him far more than California, a state he doesn't quite understand.

"It's a totally different vibe. I'm not really a convertible kind of guy."

But as he pushes back a forelock of hair which, regardless of the previous comment, is aching to be descibed as "windswept," I'm reminded of a scene in the Jean Harlow movie "Bombshell," where a poet tells the starlet that her hair is like a field of daisies, and he wants to run barefoot through it. For, on a much more sophisticated level, that absurd, exhilarating meld of romance and escapism, which lies at the center of some of life's richest moments, provides the essence of Aztec Camera's Dreamland.   

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