When their earliest singles appeared in 1981 on Postcard, the Scottish indie label that also introduced their kindred countrymen in Orange Juice, Aztec Camera came across as a tender anomaly amid the era’s futuristic synth-poppers and severe post-punk funksters. Listen now, though, to the quartet’s April 1983 debut long-player High Land, Hard Rain, and the band led by singer-guitarist Roddy Frame also seems very much of their era. Their canny combination of trebly Byrds guitars and bouncy Motown beat on “Oblivious” — the album’s lead track and the band’s first UK Top 20 hit — soon informed a band that released its initial single the very next month, fellow Rough Trade signees the Smiths.
Past this and High Land‘s other frothy singles, “Pillar to Post” and “Walk Out to Winter,” Aztec Camera’s classicism gets even more blatant. He might’ve been still a teen, yet Frame clearly aimed to reach compositional bars set decades ago by bards like Cole Porter, particularly in sweeping ballads like “We Could Send Letters.” Yet it’s here where he’s most effusively earnest in the way only young folk desperate to grow up fast can be. In hindsight, Frame’s music matured too quickly: Dire Straights’ stodgy Mark Knopfler oversaw next year’s far more polished Knife, and by the third disc, 1987′s overtly slick Love, Aztec Camera became a band in name alone.
Those too contain glistening highlights, but High Land remains Frame’s definitive statement because there’s tangible beauty in the tension between his Great American songbook aims and the plaintive jangle-pop he and his fellow players achieve. Frame pulls off a few deft Spanish guitar runs, but not even he can summon the restraint or nuance of a Broadway pit band on “The Bugle Sounds Again,” or smooth out enough for the bossa nova of “Lost Outside the Tunnel,” and the results are all the better for it. These aren’t standards, but this is excitable, relentlessly memorable New Wave.
Never would his output be as playful as it is on this generous but always entertaining deluxe edition’s B-sides, radio sessions and alternate mixes: Check out the overt Elvis Costello-isms of “Queens’s Tattoos,” or the Dylan-meets-the-Clash raucousness of “Set the Killing Free.” There’s so much yearning here — not just in Frame’s pleading yelp, but also in every gangly bass line and anxious drumbeat. Sometimes precociousness is its own reward.