The first five-star album of the year. Mail on Sunday, May 4 2014
AED Records, out tomorrow
East Kilbride, near Glasgow, 1979. A boy of 15 who has been obsessed with the guitar for years starts writing his own songs. Soon he forms a band and gives them a name, Aztec Camera. Their first recorded track appears on cassette only, part of a compilation put out by a Glasgow fanzine.
They release a couple of seven-inch singles on Postcard, a local indie label, which catch the ear of John Peel, rock’s tastemaker-in-chief. By 1983, signed to a bigger indie in London, they have an album, High Land, Hard Rain, packed with sparkling pop songs, all of them written by the boy, who is still only 19.
With a start like that – precocious, yet measured, and inconceivable now – Roddy Frame should have gone on to great things. Aztec Camera did graduate to a major label, WEA, and continued making lovely songs, but they didn’t surpass their debut. They were never a real band, and Frame acknowledged as much by switching to his own name in 1998.
As a solo artist, he released three albums full of craftsmanship and sensitivity, which never so much as scratched the charts. He made the return journey from the majors to the indies, from glossy production to scratchy demos, from modest fame to near-anonymity.
When he played the Bush Hall in London in 2011, it felt as if everybody there was a firm fan – but there were only about 350 of us. And it had been five years since he had released any music.
That might have been that. But now Roddy Frame is back in the fray, joining his friend Edwyn Collins’s label AED and climbing all the way back to the height of his powers.
Frame is 50 now, a fact that will make a few people feel old. In the cover photo, a pensive study in Rembrandt hues, you can see the old man he will one day be, as well as the boy he once was.
At the microphone, he pulls much the same trick. His voice is still boyish, but his lyrics are lined with hard-won experience. The first song, White Pony, seems to be addressed to a teenager ('don't learn to drive'), possibly his younger self.
It shapes as a typical Frame track, a comfy pop-folk strum, and then gets deeper and darker. The middle eight, which harks back to his schooldays, has the stentorian sturdiness of a hymn, and when the main theme resumes there’s a piano part so grand and intense, it could be from a David Bowie single in 1973.
This is not just a good song, it’s a big one – or would be, if only a couple of radio stations get behind it. And there are five or six more tracks here that are just as compelling.
Setting soul-baring words to soaring tunes, Frame repeatedly pins down the hopes and fears of mid-life. Into The Sun feels like a stirring pop-rock song, a sister for his greatest hit, Somewhere In My Heart; but when you listen closely, it’s about losing his faith in himself.
Like a good cook, he can take simple ingredients and conjure a delicious variety. The slowest songs, In Orbit and English Garden, are elegant laments, sung in a near-falsetto. Rear View Mirror is a soft-shoe shuffle. Postcard – not a paean to Frame’s old label – is a country chugger.
Forty Days Of Rain, kick-started by a rollicking harmonica, is pounding power-pop. From A Train, murmured over an acoustic guitar, brings the album to a beautiful but brutally honest end: ‘From a train/ Here’s the view/ Love is pain/ Rushing through/ Just when you thought/ You’d arrived.’
These songs sweep across the walls that separate one genre from another. They have the unbeatable lightness of pop, and the power and depth of rock.
Last weekend, Damon Albarn made an interesting point about the state of music. ‘With the mainstream,’ he said, ‘it's like we've gone back to showbusiness again. It's a pop landscape that exists like Dylan and the Beatles never happened.’
With the mainstream, yes. But the tributaries are teeming with excellence.
Roddy Frame plays the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, May 22