Aztec Camera

Backwards and Forwards: The WEA Recordings 1984-1995

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Backwards and Forwards: The WEA Recordings 1984-1995 Review

by Tim Sendra

If one is prone to listening to the rock critic establishment, Aztec Camera released one classic album (1982's High Land, Hard Rain), then squandered their potential over a course of disappointing records. While it's true that Roddy Frame never recaptured the innocent genius of that album, there is no lack of great music, insightful songs, and lovely singing to be found in the Aztec Camera catalog. Anyone doubting that need only check out Cherry Red's 2021 compilation Backwards and Forwards: The WEA Recordings 1984-1995 for proof. It collects the band's five albums recorded for the label, live performances that span the era, and many remixes, B-sides, and stray tracks. It's clear why the group fell out of favor with the hard-line critics of the time; having Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler produce your album is like begging for a slagging. While it's true that 1984's Knife is a much slicker album than High Land, it's also true that Frame was still writing pop songs that strike the perfect balance between melody and melodrama. Stack "Still on Fire" or "The Birth of the True" up against the works of any of his contemporaries and they give no ground. The record also serves notice of Frame's desire to never repeat himself. Indeed, every album sounds almost like it could be the work of a different group, with the only throughline being Frame's brilliant songs, nimble guitar playing, and affable vocals. 1987's Love uses all the production tricks of the era and a veritable who's who of big-name session players to craft a radio-ready megapop sound, 1990's Stray balances intimate ballads with strutting rockers, 1993's Dreamland is richly arranged adult pop, and 1995's Frestonia strips back some of the production gloss to reveal a batch of typically earnest songs. Along the way, there were some hit singles -- 1988's "Somewhere in My Heart" and 1990's near-perfect "The Crying Scene" -- as well as a rousing duet with Mick Jones of the Clash on "Good Morning Britain" and one of the best covers of a song ever with 1984's stripped-down acoustic version of Van Halen's "Jump." What was lacking was any kind of critical respect, and while Frame may not care about that, it is kind of bewildering in retrospect when the best work here stands up next to critical darlings like Scritti Politti and Prefab Sprout. Maybe Frame was too handsome or not a good enough interviewee; maybe people were too enthralled by the grand spectacle of High Land to give subsequent music the credit it deserves. With this release, anyone with an open mind can retrace Frame's career and see that while not everything he released was gold, there is enough precious material here to rehab his WEA years and then some. (And if you already knew all this and just want to check out all the post-High Land material in one place, this package certainly comes through. The discs of remixes and extra tracks are good fun, the live tracks are made up of inspired performances, and the full acoustic concert recorded by Frame at Ronnie Scott's in 1991 is a lovely document of a special night.)

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