Aztec Camera – ‘High Land Hard Rain’: Round 89 – Steve’s choice

highlandhardrain

I was slightly nervous about introducing this album. Not only was it my first time at Devon Record Club but I had to admit that this was “my favourite album of all time”. I’ve received mixed press about my liking for this album, mostly coming at the end of a long night with a friend back home for some after-hours drinking. I have a certain reverance for it that only “allows me” to play it all the way through, which possibly shows an unhealthy love for it. Please bear with my foibles if you will and hear my case.

The album was released in April 1983 on Rough Trade (more later) and was the debut for the band, introducing the prodigious talent of Roddy Frame. He, it is said, wrote most of the album at the tender age of 15, and was 20 when it was released. The sheer talent displayed on this album is staggering for someone of that age. His guitar takes in 12 string, Spanish flamenco, and fast and furious strumming we so love to hear from this early 1980s independent music (don’t we?). He could have only started that journey early. Yet, underneath this talent is a tenderness, vulnerability and an insight into things unknown – possibly a love overseas (“I brought you some Francs from my traveling chest”) and an unbridled display of confidence in his ability (“You’ll spare me the thanks ’til you know I’m the best”) – the two opening lines of the second track on the first side (yes, it’s an LP not a CD, made to play in sides Nick). There’s bags of cleverness in here as well, with some lines turning in on themselves, such as “The cards are on the table now and every other cliché somehow fits me like a glove. You know that I’d be loathe to call it love” on “The Bugle Sounds Again”. A song to which I can readily shed a tear.

What I also love about this album is that it seems to get better and better as it goes through, reaching a final crescendo on “Back on Board”, only for it to come crashing down on “Down the Dip” (“I put all the love and beauty in the spirit of the night, and I’m holding my ticket tight. Stupidity and suffering are on that ticket, too and I’m going down the dip with you.”). The highs, the lows, the love the loss – all there in it’s beauty, glory and desperation. There’s also an eagerness about it, to get his word out there, to be heard. I love that about a debut album, and this one displays it more than any other I have listened to – and I have listened to this one a lot.

I only own this one album by Aztec Camera. It was too good for me to continue their journey with them. Before they were on Rough Trade they were signed to Postcard Records – perhaps the hippest label in town, run by the maverick Alan Horne. His philosophy was that the independents were going to take on the majors and produce better music than them – they succeeded but well after Alan’s time. In some ways Aztec Camera seemed too impatient for this pace of change, and this album almost reflects that, wanting to bring it forward. They of course went on to much greater commercial success, but on a major label. This album therefore sounds more well-crafted and honed than its contemporaries. Perhaps they could just play their instruments better than the jangled and angular indie pop around them. The album therefore stands as a white pillar in this era, demanding attention. Only a year later would The Smiths (their label-mates) smash onto the scene, and the rest would be history. When they came to a sad demise, with the departure of another guitar giant (Mr Marr) the only replacement that was contemplated, was Roddy Frame (apparently). I’m not surprised really, nor am I that he probably declined. He knew a gem when he saw it and wouldn’t want it ruined.

So, there you go. My debut write-up. I had to get it out there.

Rob listened: Welcome aboard Steve! And thanks for bringing this along as your opening gambit. It’s a bold move to declare that your first choice is also your favourite of all time (all downhill from here). In fact I’m struggling to recall whether any record we’ve heard in our 80-odd meetings has been introduced as a personal pinnacle. The others will, I’m sure, correct me. It’s what we do.

There was much general talk of first impressions while ‘High Land, Hard Rain’ played, both the way they are formed and the way they may change. After I found my way to The Smiths in 1986, Aztec Camera were one of the possible next steps. In fact several of my fellow musical explorers did go off in that direction, stopping to pick up Lloyd Cole and Prefab Sprout on the way. As it happens, I’d already lowered my rope ladder to allow The Fall, PiL and Joy Division to clamber aboard, and so my ship sailed in a different direction and please can I stop this metaphor now please?

Rough edges, voids, absences, disruptions are the way I find my way into the vast majority of the music I love. We talked a lot about how particularly  Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout don’t have those, or at least don’t appear to at first, second or third listening. And so first time around, I found nothing to get to grips with, and since then I have always bounced off their polished surfaces and away towards something else.

I don’t dig virtuosity either, although I can marvel at it. It’s never enough to sell me on a particular artist or song. I totally get that what Roddy Frame was doing here was utterly remarkable for someone his age at this particular period in music. But that’s that. I’ve remarked upon it. Now I’m moving on.

I’ve listened to ‘High Land, Hard Rain’ a number of times since last week, admittedly distractedly, and the melodies and rhythms are are growing on me. I’ve found myself humming them in quiet moments and looking forward to hearing them again. But no click as yet. As I said to much unwarranted amusement on the night, I think that there’s a period in your live when you are forming indellible impressions about music (or anything else you are passionate about) when, to adapt a phrase from Billy Bragg, your cement is wet. And once it’s set, there’s no shifting it. I get Aztec Camera, I admire what they’re doing, I find it nice to listen to and I understand why this could be an all-time favourite, but not for me. My loss.

Tom listened: There are obvious parallels to be drawn between Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout and, having spent some time unlocking the majesty of Steve McQueen, I can completely empathise with the difficulty Rob has in seeing past the smoothness of High Land Hard Rain but, concurrently, can recognise that this album could easily pull off the same trick as Prefab’s second album, sneak up on me discreetly and politely and then ‘Hey Presto!’ what do you know ,it’s gone and wheedled its way into my top 10 of all time list (if I had such a thing). Steve McQueen would certainly be in there! That said, I found this even more discombobulating on first listen; tricky key changes and meandering songs that offered much less structure than, say, Bonnie or When Loves Breaks Down or Appetite or…basically the entire first side of SM. But I’d bet that with repeated listens all that seemed awkward at first would melt away and reveal finely crafted tunes that give more and more with each new listen. I would certainly pick this up if I ever came across it in a second hand record store…

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2 thoughts on “Aztec Camera – ‘High Land Hard Rain’: Round 89 – Steve’s choice”

  1. I have great memories of this album. Because of this review I’ll be listening to it again. Thanks for writing this, Steve.

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