It would be easy to write Aztec Camera off as another early 1980s MTV band, with its super sharp production, its ingratiating melodies, its high cheek-boned and floppy-haired romanticism. Listening to the debut now, 30 years later, it sounds like an artifact of some lost, pop-centric age, all gated percussion and manicured yearning. And yet, like contemporaries in the Blue Nile, Scritti Politti and Orange Juice, Aztec Camera slipped a certain amount of edge under pretty surfaces. Get beyond the Phil Collins-into-Peter Gabriel style clarity, and the songs start to take hold.
High Land, Hard Rain was Aztec Camera’s first album, following only a couple of singles and an entry (“We Could Send Letters”) on the now-definitive C81 compilation. When he made it, guitarist and singer-songwriter Roddy Frame was still in his teens, and it has an unmistakably youthful mix of bristle and tenderness. “Oblivious,” the opener, is almost impossibly catchy. A sunny jangle, a tropically lilting syncopation of bass and drums, it has single written all over it. (It was, in fact, the single.) And yet, even here, Frame slips in an acerbic “I see you crying and I want to kill your friends.”
It’s a Smiths-worthy move, that combination of melodic ease and lyrical spike, and perhaps it’s not surprising that Johnny Marr cites Aztec Camera as an inspiration. Marr has said that he wrote “This Charming Man,” as an answer to “Walk Out to Winter,” telling Mojo, “I felt a little jealous. My competitive urges kicked in. I felt that we needed something up-beat and in a major key for Rough Trade to get behind.”
Like Orange Juice and Scritti Politti, Aztec Camera cut its anorak pop with an infusion of R&B, slipping a jazz-slanted guitar line into “Release,” and approach a full Motown-esque orchestral swell with “Back on Board.” In these tracks — as well as the more conventionally pop ones — you realize how flexible and skilled Frame is with his guitar. His solo mid-way through “Oblivious” displays technique as aggressively as anything from Television, but it also slips fairly seamlessly into a lightweight pop song.
The best of these cuts, however, is a simple one, the understated “We Could Send Letters,” with its translucent tangles of guitar, its melancholy, stripped-down vocals. Even here in the break-up song, Frame shies away from sentiment, rejecting “the sympathy you bleed” for the slight consolation of the title phrase. It’s a desolate, lovely song, even wrapped as it is in early 1980s sonics.
“We Could Send Letters” is good enough to get you beyond the slick surfaces, solving what it clearly not a new problem. In fact, Christgau, in his contemporaneous consideration of High Land, Hard Rain, noted that, “At first I did the obvious thing and pigeonholed this as high-grade pop — richer and truer than Haircut 100 or even The dB’s or The Bongos and ultimately feckless anyhow. Now I think it’s more like U2 with songs (which is all U2 needs). For sheer composition — not just good tunes, but good tunes that swoop and chime and give you goosebumps.”
Yet it’s especially difficult now, when fuzz is close to required in Aztec Camera’s descendants, and when clarity signals commercial ambition and soullessness. If you’re having difficulties adapting, you might try starting with disc two of this reissue, a collection of alternate versions, live radio performances and remixes. It is noticeably rougher, and, to be honest, it was here that I started to like Aztec Camera’s songs enough to go back to the original album.
Of course, objecting to gated snares in High Land, Hard Rain is like rejecting a Whistler exhibit because you don’t like the way women look in corsets. It’s part of the territory, part of the history, and once you acclimate to it, subtracts hardly at all from Aztec Camera’s appeal.