These days, it’s relatively easy for performers to hide behind studio gimmickry—weak voices and guitars get double-tracked, with boosts of reverb and electronic enhancement masking any weaknesses, or perhaps the whole mess gets couched in a layer of mixed sounds designed to hide any flaws. As listeners, we too have become spoiled. When presented with mere vocals and acoustic instrumentation, we fickle lot complain of sameness of sound.
In truth, such bare-bones music must rely on three things: a pleasant voice, competent musicianship and most important, strong songs. With Surf, you get all three and then some. Former Aztec Camera creative force Roddy Frame steps into the solo spotlight all by his lonesome here, and succeeds where lesser talents would fall.
Recorded in Frame’s own front room, there is not a hint of the glitz and gloss of studio releases—but surprisingly, none are needed. Instead, you get Mr. Frame’s pliant tenor, his confident guitar playing and a startling collection of wonderful songs that blossom over repeated listens.
This is mature songwriting with subtlety and nuance from a veteran of song craft. From an early age, Frame’s talent with lyrics and songwriting received critical acclaim, often with comparisons to (or praise from) Elvis Costello. He was still in his teens as Aztec Camera’s career took off, though it never really added up to the kind of major fame accorded others. The sporadic career of Aztec Camera spawned six albums in the span of 15 years, wherein Frame proved he was no slave to popular whims.
As a songwriter and performer he always did what he wanted to do, including covers of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” or a very folky rendition of Van Halen’s “Jump”. Now, as a soloist, Frame goes “lo-fi” and serves up a melancholy collection of poignant songs about love and London and love lost, proving again (in an understated, yet refined way) that he is all about quality.
“Over You” opens things, a somber tale of trying to get over an ex- who already has managed that feat: “I heard you were out / SW3 / Talking about how you were over me / All of our time’s been torn in two / Now I spend all of mine trying to get over you”.
The title track sounds like it could be one of Ron Sexsmith’s best compositions, in the sense that it’s one of those deceptively simple melodies that sounds as if it always existed. Frame harnesses it here, and ties it to lyrics that speak of how music and songs are so much easier than the real life entanglements of love.
“Small World” is a delicious little waltz, addressing the types of escape one goes through while awaiting a girl’s return, chock full of visceral imagery: “Laser guns are set to stun / Sabres interlace / And try to numb the one who shuns the world for inner space / And nothing comes between the sadness and the screen / Exploding rooms of pain dematerialize again”.
“I Can’t Start Now” is a gorgeous slow ballad of reminisce, discussing all the reasons why a relationship went wrong, how he kept it all inside and can’t start now, but ends with this confession: “I hid it all with pride / While time was on my side / From the echoing alley to the sun-kissed valley / I made it through somehow / But she had made me start to open up my heart / And I can’t stop now”.
Frame’s fine acoustic-picking ability is well displayed with “Abloom”, one of the more optimistic songs in this collection, assuring that broken loves can heal in time: “I know, feels like a curtain up with no time to rehearse / In fact, it’s the fabric of the universe / Draping us in sun / The day’s abloom / Life has begun again”.
“Tough” is more of a stripped-down pop song, bristling with intelligence and poetry as well as tunefulness, mixing nostalgia and age differences and love with a nice 12-string guitar. “Big Ben” is another beautiful ballad linking London with love and the cycle of life (many of these songs cover similar ground in different ways).
“High Class Music” musically approaches the more traditional folk song, yet offers up a wonderful bunch of lyrics that dig deep and celebrate simplicity over snobbery, art and love over all else. Frame has not lost his flair for poetic observations, as this quatrain from “Turning The World Around” shows: “It’s like the sun releases my soul as they fall away / They’re broken into pieces by the toll of the everyday / Love and small ambitions and good hearts run aground / The pull of our condition, turning the world around”.
Frame covers a wide assortment of styles from his acoustic living room perch, with everything from folk to pop to jazz to slack-key guitar and even a hint of Latin influence in the song “For What It Was”. Still, this collection is not for everyone. Many will bemoan the lack of sonic adornment, claiming much of the songs sound the same. Discriminating and patient listeners will find otherwise, listening for Frame’s subtle musical nuances and poetic lyrics and finding them most impressive.
Surf is awash in wistful personal observations, captured in mere expressive guitar and plaintive voice. Perhaps this album of predominantly gentle ballads is best taken in small doses, a song or two at a time, so that each track can be appreciated for its own merits. These 13 songs are a pleasant quiet testament to the ongoing talents of Roddy Frame, aural proof that the years have not dulled them.