“Sophisti-pop” is a dumb moniker, but it’s difficult to describe this kind of music in any other way.
“Sophisti-pop” is a dumb moniker, but it’s difficult to describe this kind of music in any other way. Calling it “jazz-influenced pop that places a greater importance on technical skill and songwriting craftsmanship” isn’t nearly as catchy of a marketing term. What’s more, it wasn’t the easiest music to market: jazzy, guitar-driven songs that emphasized craft above all else seemed out of step, to say the least, in the era of big-sounding synth-pop. This is to say that there’s no reason why Aztec Camera’s High Land, Hard Rain should have received any attention at the time it came out in 1983. Yet, not only did it do reasonably well at the time (“Oblivious” got on college radio in America, which isn’t the Top 40 but is better than the likes of the Jazz Butcher ever did), it remains a highly regarded classic of the era. The album feels like a lightning-in-a-bottle moment in Roddy Frame’s career; while his subsequent albums both as Aztec Camera and under his own name would have highs and lows, nothing quite captured the melding of melody, skill and inspiration that is infused in every note of High Land, Hard Rain.
Sometimes, an album opener is (pardon the unintentional lyric reference) obvious. High Land isn’t an overarching concept album or anything; it was meant to introduce a new songwriter to the pop sphere the way first albums have done since pop music became a thing. It’s hard to say whether “Oblivious” is the best song, but it does have a verve and skip in its step that makes it perfect for radio. Frame would eventually stray away from simple pop structures both on this album and on his work afterwards, but “Oblivious” is a fantastic song that imagines an alternate reality where Frame’s music takes over the world.
2. “The Boy Wonders”
The knock on sophisti-pop is that it’s often so focused on craft that the emotional impact is blunted. It’s perhaps in this regard where Frame rises above his peers. There’s a desperation in the vocals on “The Boy Wonders” that gets at the listener, so much so that one could be forgiven for ignoring the truly breathtaking guitar work on the song. Now that Roddy has lured us in, he’s up for showing us the more intricate ideas he has.
3. “Walk out to Winter”
Frame’s greatest gift as a songwriter may be that he’s a student of a number of different styles; he appreciates punk, rock, soul and jazz in equal measure, and it bears out in his work. “Walk out to Winter” combines all of these genres into one song; the backing vocals on the chorus echo elements of Northern Soul while Frame’s guitar work enters the realm of Django Reinhardt. The song is otherwise formally constructed; all of Frame’s virtuosity is crammed in a 4/4 verse-chorus structure with an instrumental bridge and a key change. But when Frame hits those high notes at the key change, the thoughts dissipate and you once again lose yourself in the song.
4. “The Bugle Sounds Again”
After three fast, poppy guitar workouts, we finally get a chance to breathe as Frame presents the first ballad on the album. Here, he allows himself to be clever (the line “The cards are on the table/ And every kind of cliché somehow fits me like a glove” is one of those secretly brilliant turns of phrase that you miss the first time and kick yourself for missing once you get it.), yet he never strays into the realm of being too arch. The spare arrangement helps accentuate his vocals, and they tell a tragic story more effectively than simple words ever could.
5. “We Could Send Letters”
Every so often when listening to this album, it’s important to take a step back and consider that Frame was 18 fucking years old when he recorded this album. Most songwriters can’t realistically capture the wistful longing of “We Could Send Letters” after having lived long, fruitful lives, and Frame manages to do it before he’s old enough to drink in America. There are hints here at the grander, more bombastic kind of songs Frame would eventually write on Knife, but it’s still dressed sparingly. He gives the song room to breathe so that the melody remains the focus of attention. The grand sound even works to the song’s advantage as it emphasizes the tragedy of distance expressed in the lyrics. Frame was never a storyteller in the traditional sense, but “We Could Send Letters” conveys so much by using simple techniques to great effect.
6. “Pillar to Post”
Aside from maybe “Oblivious,” this is as poppy as Frame gets. The soul elements of his songwriting creep in again, both with the reintroduction of his backing vocalists and the chorus’ tale of happiness long lost. The lyrics here have a hint of melancholy to them, but it’s not the sort of melancholy that one wallows in; instead, Frame is manic, moving at a quick pace through the verses before slightly slowing down for the bridge, which plays like a wordless anthem.
This introduces the more overtly jazzy side of the album, but even then, Frame isn’t one to play up to expectations. “Release” begins in the same wistful mode that the ballads on the album do, but it’s all a ruse as the song slowly builds in tempo and the urgency in Frame’s voice becomes more and more apparent. The lyrics tell a story of escape, and Frame makes that escape feel like the most necessary thing in the world.
8. “Lost Outside the Tunnel”
Lost connections are an important recurring theme on High Land, Hard Rain, first in the sense of physical distance on “Letters” and here in terms of the emotional distance between people. Frame actually sounds like he’s in a tunnel here; his despairing vocals reverberate and underline the space between the two souls of the lyrics. Again, it builds slowly yet resolutely, but ultimately there is no resolution, because how could there be?
9. “Back on Board”
After reaching what is perhaps the lowest emotional point on the album, we need a bit of an uplift. Frame models “Back on Board” off elements of soul and gospel, particularly on the chorus’ call for salvation. It’s not too hopeful—Frame’s speakers always have a sense of realism—but the collective of backing singers who sing the chorus through the fade-out give a hint of the salvation he wants and may just get.
10. “Down the Dip”
Love can only get you so far, though. Eventually, the realities of life bleed through the world of pop and bring troubles with them. “Down the Dip” is Frame’s one explicit step into political songwriting, and while he doesn’t write a Billy Bragg-style polemic, he shows both sympathy and solidarity to the working man in a time when the UK government was vilifying them. On an album that deals with the ups and downs of trying to connect with other people, it’s only fitting that High Land, Hard Rain closes with a song that reminds people of the unspoken bonds they share with the collective whole.