4 out of 5
Produced by: Eric Calvi, Roddy Frame
I have affection for all of the Aztec Camera albums, Love included. What, understandably, many seemed to read as an over-glossed attempt at breaking US charts – which it surely was – I find to be in line with what AC, or Roddy Frame, had been working on the whole while, moving his sound onward and upward in search of the limits of how poppy and modern a troubadour could get.
And though he might’ve changed tactics afterwards because of Love’s reception, I also think Frame found the limit on that release; a more critical reception-minded or chart-baiting artist might’ve swerved hard and gone back to the relative “safety” of High Land’s folk, or perhaps copy and pasted Love for another popular single (since it did have that…), but with Stray, it rather feels like Roddy just decided to embrace it all – to confirm that all of this is part of Aztec Camera’s sound. And it’s an album of identity for that reason, showing his face front and center – he’d now appear on album covers for the next couple releases, clarifying that he is the Aztec moniker – and doing a whirlwind tour of the most bright and shiny stuff yet (the ripping rock of Good Morning Britain; the 80s pop sheen of The Crying Scene), but then also its most stripped down: the sedate, gorgeous Over My Head absolutely a glance forward to Roddy’s albums under his own name.
With the opening two-thirds of the album throwing down the gauntlet in this sense, the back third feels like a mini-album within itself – we start with extremes of loud and shiny and quiet, then revert back to something a bit more personal; again, showing that all of these sides of Aztec Camera are linked, but also giving the album an interesting tonal balance: songs for the audience; songs for Frame himself, with lyrics initially pointed outward and then inward.
As to those lyrics, I’m also apparently kinder on these than critics, who often found Frame’s earlier efforts a bit cheeky, but I’ll agree that Stray is where he found his adult voice, cutting between commentary and poetry and tropes.
So this all sounds… positive, right? It is. Stray is an amazing album. But as mentioned, it has a kind of mini-album packed into it, preceded by all singles. This feels very purposeful, but it ironically robs the disc of having a set identity, even though I just got done explaining how this is kinda where Aztec Camera came wholly into its own. When I think of any other AC disc, it has a sound; this one does not: it has songs… though, yes, they are all excellent.