Whatever it is about Scotland that makes its songwriters singularly smart devotees of pop music, it has continued unabated for some time. Alongside the power-pop titans of Teenage Fanclub and twee-minstrels of Belle and Sebastian stands Roddy Frame, better known with a backing band under the moniker of Aztec Camera. Their 1983 debut, High Land, Hard Rain, has long been lauded as a masterpiece, echoing and refining the sound of contemporaries like Orange Juice, but it was followed by increasingly disappointing returns.
1990 seemed to change that a bit with the excellent Stray. The title is a reflection of both the lost romantic elements that lyrically grace the album and the fact that the record never seems to stay in one place musically from track to track. Slow burning jazz croons appear twice in the first side with the opening title track and the gorgeous “Over My Head.” Big, righteous rock and roll comes in the form of singles “The Crying Scene” and the Mick Jones-featuring “Good Morning Britain.” There’s even plenty of evidence that the 80s weren’t too far gone in the form of smoothly produced pop on “The Gentle Kind.”
But as much as this makes Stray sound like a mess, it’s an album of subtle connections and at just over 41 minutes, it has an impact much larger than its individual parts. The bombastic surface-politics of “Good Morning Britain” wouldn’t pop nearly as hard without the lead-in of “Over My Head“‘s forlorn love. “How It Is” and its trad-rock riffs become much more beneficial as a lead-in to “The Gentle Kind“‘s slickly produced balladry. After the brass-ring aimed fiasco of their fourth album, Love, in 1987, it seems like Frame decided to let his muses flow and it was the right instinct. Stray is almost as good an entry point into the world of Aztec Camera as High Land, Hard Rain, but is also an essential piece of the Scottish pop legacy. words/ j neas