4 out of 5
Produced by: Roddy Frame
After the bright and lyrical Frestonia, under the Aztec Camera moniker, Roddy Frame’s first subsequent release under his own name – North Star – very much played it safe. Those are two extremes, perhaps: rather experimental for the former – perhaps not recognizable as Aztec Camera – and then incredibly familiar with the latter, bringing AC recognizability to material Frame released under his own name.
Surf, his next solo followup, has nothing to prove in that sense, having shown he can go far afield or still bring out the hits; as such, it’s as bare as can be – just Frame, just a guitar. And it’s here that he also truly finds a voice as a solo artist, stripping away the tendency toward bemused love and relationship songs, and going very introspective. Frame is still obsessed with loss, and observing the world around him, but Surf finds him allowing his words to seem more contemplative, less-so trying to be clever or poetic. This combines with a paced, soulful singing style and a stripped down guitar strum, only vaguely hinting, here and there, at AC folk stylings.
And it’s gorgeous. And moving. And immersive.
Often with person-and-an-acoustic-guitar records, I need to go in with some patience; Surf’s overall speed may be sniff-the-flowers slow, but Frame has not lost his knack for a hook, even when boiled down to a bare melody, and because his writing here isn’t strictly verse-chorus-verse, it means all moments of the record are filled either with toe-tapping tunes, or thoughtful lyrics, or, often, both.
I’d say the bookends of the album are perfection; in the middle, while the tracks pick up again – there are some hooks – Frame’s intra-track focus wanders a bit, making the “point” of some of those songs feel a little fuzzy, even if they’re still incredibly enjoyable. it’s an effect that wears off the more you spin this, but on initial or occasional listens, I’ve found my attentions not as grabbed by the album’s midsection.
On the other hand, I’m never not amazed how powerful and fun – and sad – this album is, given its minimalist style, and also rather unique sound amongst Frame’s discography.