The dour, economically ravaged Scotland of the early 1980s witnessed a sudden, incongruous explosion of impeccably crafted, literate but sunny jangle-pop that belied the pervading gloom north of the border as Thatcherism tightened its grip. Emerging alongside other noted names like Orange Juice and Lloyd Cole And The Commotions was the impossibly youthful Roddy Frame, who with his Aztec Camera band mates was already recording singles for Postcard Records at the tender age of 16. A series of critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums followed, culminating with 1987’s Love, which gave Frame a Top 3 single with the soaring Somewhere In My Heart.
Frame never scaled those heights of popular appeal again. His career since Love has ambled along affably enough without ever really recapturing the spark of Aztec Camera’s early work and Seven Dials – the East Kilbride man’s first solo record in eight years – is probably unlikely to catapult him back into the public consciousness. Which is rather a shame, because it ably demonstrates that while he is now a middle-aged man rather than the prodigy of yore, Frame’s well of songwriting is still a long way from running dry.
Frame has always made his music appear effortless, with melodies flowing as naturally as a Scottish mountain spring. The opening track of Seven Dials instantly reminds us of his undimmed gifts – a gentle guitar strum to a light bossa nova rhythm building up to a big chorus, with some Beatlesey honky tonk piano thrown in for good measure. Frame doesn’t have a particularly strong voice, but rather like Paul McCartney, he carries his songs smoothly and elegantly, knowing not to overstretch himself and never dominating to the extent where his vocal limitations become an unwelcome distraction.
The next two songs – Postcard and Into The Sun – are even better. The latter’s blissful evocations of California may or may not be a sly reference to the trademark influences that inspired artists signed to a certain Glaswegian record company, but what’s beyond doubt is the loveliness of the hazy guitar twang and the chorus’s gospel swell. Into The Sun’s pretty jangle belies what’s an anguished, bittersweet tale of regret and disappointment in love, with Frame lamenting: “Erase all trace of me until I’m just a piece of paper/I’ve placed my faith in something/that I cannot believe in any more.”
Seven Dials alters its moods well. Rear View Mirror is quiet, contemplative glide through memories of the past, while in contrast 40 Days Of Rain is an irresistibly catchy, country-tinged stomp that’s arguably closer to Somewhere In The City’s radio-friendly dynamics than anything Frame has written since, with liberal lashings of harmonica and churchy organ giving the song a joyous, almost hymnal quality.
On the downside, the album does see a slight dip in quality in its second half, with some less memorable songs than what’s gone before, but at no point does Frame lose his easy poise and way with a tune. Seven Dials ends with just him and his acoustic guitar on From A Train, its intricate, shimmering chords of loveliness reminding us what an accomplished musician Frame is. All in all, this is a long overdue return from one of Britain’s most underrated performers, who has matured gracefully from the life-affirming exuberance of his teens into a more reflective but no less compelling voice.