June 16, 2003

Aztec Camera "Knife/Aztec Camera"

In my "curiosities" section recently, I reviewed the Aztec Camera 10" live EP. I didn't know it at the time, but this record was reissued late last year as part of a twofer with Aztec Camera's sophmore album Knife. While I'll save discussion of that particular record, I would like to further investigate and discuss the first half of this record.

Knife was an appropriate name for this follow-up to Aztec Camera's still utterly wonderful debut, High Lands, Hard Rain, simply because at the time, it was seemed as an egregious stab in the back, a sellout of the highest magnitude. I always feel a little bad for bands who release home-run albums on their first step up to the plate. It almost always insures that the band will suffer from the dreaded Second Album Syndrome, and often what could be a promising legacy is torn to shreds because the band is expected to better their already-best work. How many wonderful bands have been ripped apart because they simply couldn't deliver, either in terms of material or label/fan expectations?

It almost happened to Aztec Camera--and some might argue that indeed it did happen to Roddy Frame. For Knife, the young (and we mean young) Frame inexplicably hired the older and (not necessarily) wiser Mark Knopfler (!!) as producer. When the album appeared in 1984, the first thing fans noticed--and couldn't help but notice--was how utterly different it was. The jangle-pop of High Land, Hard Rain was replaced with slick, well-produced pop-oriented songs that would certainly scream "sell-out" if you loved the debut. Reading reviews and fan reaction, you'd swear that Frame had committed some great atrocity. People took his change in style personally.

Nineteen years later, it's glaringly obvious why the fans hated it. The knee-jerk reaction and rejection--especially in the face of greatness--might seem quaint now, but they did have a point. Knife is a slick-sounding record, and several of the arrangements sound terribly dated, and even though the songs are good, I dare you not to cringe at places. "All I Need is Everything" and "Still on Fire" are the worst offenders, and if I were a fan back then, I'd have been shocked and slightly upset about how generic it sounds. Personally, I can't listen to those two tracks without cringing.

But is Knife really that bad? No, not at all. There are certainly some really wonderful songs here; heck, even the flawed "Still on Fire" is good--it's just killed by overproduction. Good songs rise out of bad arrangements, and "Just Like the USA," "The Birth of the True," and "Backwards & Forwards" still rank among his best work. Personally, I'm fond of the epic, nine-minute title song. It's a sad, beautiful ballad, and in a weird kind of way, it really reminds me of another great album-closing epic from that era, "Purple Rain."

I've already reviewed the Aztec Camera EP, but let me add that the stripped-down arrangements that were performed live really highlight the fact that Frame had not lost the plot, and that the songwriting was still extremely strong. (This version adds a track left off of the American 10", "The Boy Wonders," but it's really not essential.) I'd like to see someone come along and release some live shows from this era--or any Aztec Camera era, really--because it's been said that he is an excellent live performer, and can easily bring to life his weakest studio recording, and the live songs on Aztec Camera really prove that point.

For those that are curious about Roddy Frame and Aztec Camera, the double-header of Knife and Aztec Camera is the second-best place to start. Go get High Lands, Hard Rain, and then this one, and you'll certainly be rewarding yourself with music from one of the best artists of the 1980s--no matter how flawed they might have seemed at the time.

--Joseph Kyle

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