There's much to like about Roddy Frame, and much to admire about this album. Shame it lacks a killer tune.
And so, it’s the return of Roddy the Scottish minstrel. Except that it’s not a return but rather Roddy building on a 12-month period when his reputation has rarely been so vertiginous. Frame has not been prolific with his output over the years, but 2013-14 has witnessed an unusually busy bout of activity from him. Last year marked the 30th anniversary of Aztec Camera’s landmark album High Land Hard Rain, and a small number of live UK performances by Frame to coincide with it. This was followed by the recent release of Seven Dials in the UK and the announcement of live shows in Germany and the UK in the autumn to promote it. Which all begs the question: has Roddy got his mojo back?
In some respects, Roddy Frame’s history presents his biggest challenge in the present day. High Land Hard Rain was a one-off, consummate folk-pop collection that tapped into the zeitgeist when Postcard Records (also Scottish) and the Smiths used jangly guitars and melancholy in equal measure as a soundtrack for the youth of Britain. In 1988, again under the guise of Aztec Camera, Frame released "Somewhere In My Heart", a a classic pop single which still never fails to lift the soul every time it comes on the radio.
Seven Dials is actually Frame’s fourth solo album since those halcyon '80s days, and his first since Western Skies in 2006. The first takeaway from the 10 tracks (none lasting more than 4;17 -- Frame has never been extravagant with his words or music) is that it is a very personal album. His '80s triumphs tend to make us always think of Roddy as a boy, the eternal youth. But the lyrics relate of a man who has seen life and has his high points and his regrets. The last track, "From A Train", a reflective acoustic piece where Frame drops his voice an octave, sounds like he is saying goodbye to something. The penultimate track, "The Other Side", ambiguously seems to talk of both unrequited love and the relief of "making it though to the other side". Roddy Frame has never been a commentator on external events: Seven Dials reinforces his preference as a chronicler of internal moods, passions and reflections.
The music also continues the leitmotif of Frame as folk troubadour. Nearly all the tracks on Seven Dials are backed by Frame’s fluent acoustic guitar. Other musical styles occasionally provide an interlude or a complement to the pop-folk backdrop. "English Garden" finishes with Frame’s voice soaring over a semi-tumult of crashing piano chords. Lovely melodic electric guitar (summoning up Gary Moore in his best Thin Lizzy moments) breaks into the opening song, the wistful "White Pony". As a rebuttal to the title, the catchy "Forty Days of Rain" commences with a jaunty harmonica. "Rear View Mirror" is a surprising bossa nova, its intricate jazz drumming a highlight.
The dominating low-key feeling to Seven Dials could become overbearing. But Frame’s finely-honed songcraft ensures that the song flow never lapses into a monotone. However, for all the depth and texture to this album, the major reason why Seven Dials is not elevated from good to great is the lack of really cracking tunes. "Into The Sun", which has an all-my-days Rubber Soul feel to it, and "Postcard" (surely no confidence of title), which mines some beautiful Eagles-like harmonies, are the closest that Frame gets to a memorable melody. Perhaps one of those two songs, or another, will on repeated listens join the pantheon of "Oblivious", "We Could Send Letters", or "Somewhere In My Heart". But not yet.
Seven Dials is worth your money and prompts the hope that Roddy Frame will be more active in his mature years. Watching him live, drawing on his rich heritage and showing what he’s capable of now, would be worth even more.