A quick confession before I start: I hadn't, before picking up Stray today, played this album for around five years, when these re-issues first came out. Even before then, I rarely played my first copy of the album, either. For me, it was always the Aztec Camera album I didn't really think much of, the record that was only notable for that single with Mick Jones and had a distinct lack of memorable tunes. In a way, I was feeling slightly nonplussed at the thought of re-listening to and writing about Stray, but also interested to see if giving it some time and attention would reveal a greater understanding of and love for Roddy Frame's fourth album. The first striking thing about Stray is the almost immediate rejection of the kind of production values that made 1987's Love such a sleek, glossy, shiny thing. There are a few pop/rock songs, sure, but one of the immediate impressions you get from the title track which opens the album is that this is going to be a more honest affair, musically, with Frame's voice and compositions given plenty of room to breath and express themselves. Although the song Stray is perhaps a curious choice to kick off the record, it is an obvious statement of intent, like he's saying “this is me”, and with the jazzy pianos, world-weary lyrics and Roddy's voice pulled right to the fore, this heartfelt ballad is a gamble that really does pay off.
The Crying Scene is a really enjoyable indie-rock song, with guitars in the fore, only a hint of synthesisers and a touch of self deprecation “You only get one hit, that's the beauty of it/What's the good in crying?”; not the greatest song Roddy has ever written, but it's certainly extremely listenable. Get Outta London, with its powerful rock character, thumping drums and rich, deep bass line, isn't exactly the most loving tribute paid to the UK's capital city, but as an ex-resident of the city that can often seem impersonal and uncaring, I can certainly empathise with the sentiments behind it. The gorgeous smoky, jazz torch song that is Over My Head is exquisitely delivered; so much so, it's difficult to believe that just three years earlier the same man gave us Everybody Is A Number One. Good Morning Britain, a highly politicised rock song, featuring The Clash's Mick Jones, is a bold, admirable number whose lyrics could only really be disliked by the kind of people who believe that patriotism equates to a blind belief in a country's greatness. Needless to say, I am not one of those people and, without going too deep into the politics, I believe Frame's social commentary here, written in a pre-Good Friday agreement United Kingdom, is fair and steeped in a desire for an end to division and conflict as well as a need for equality and respect for all citizens of our home nations; it's an excellent song and, even better, has a rather catchy chorus. It is interesting to think about the content of this song and analyse just how much has changed over the past twenty-seven years. Have things changed enough? That is for the individual to decide.
Aztec Camera do their best Rolling Stones impression on How It Is but, although superficially enjoyable musically with some brutal, hard-hitting “right on” lyrics, is still, for me, one of the weaker tracks on the album. The Gentle Kind, is a nice pop song with a shuffling beat and pleasant melody, but fails to get out of first gear too often whereas Notting Hill Blues, weighing in at nearly seven minutes long, manages to convey a greater emotional punch and also features a wonderful Roddy Frame guitar solo. Final track, Song For A Friend, is an acoustic guitar and vocals only track and, whilst it doesn't quite hit the heights of Down The Dip or Killermont Street, is a beautiful song, honestly delivered, and it finishes the album gracefully. Perhaps one of the notable factors about Stray is that, whilst perhaps Roddy has written stronger songs on other albums, Aztec Camera's fourth release is devoid of anything that isn't, at least, easy to listen to or enjoyable. There is no overproduction muddying the waters, no hideously dated synthesiser sounds honking over the pop tracks and nothing that appears to have been written with either Frame or the record company looking for a massive hit (despite its commercial appeal, I think the lyrics disqualifies Good Morning Britain as a cynical crowd-pleaser). As much as I think Love is a superb album in places, Stray is the anti-Love; it feels like we've got the Roddy Frame that we knew from High Land, Hard Rain back and I can now understand why so many people loved Stray at the time and why so many fans continue to enthuse about it many years later.
Thoughts about the bonus disc:
The 2012 Rhino re-issue of Stray comes in a hardback booklet-type sleeve, has glossy pages with full lyrics, photos, artwork and an essay about the album by journalist Terry Staunton. The bonus tracks start off well, with the 'B'-side material being of fairly decent quality. Consolation is the kind of Frame composition you can understand not meriting inclusion on a studio album, whereas the cover of Cyndi Lauper's True Colours is, whilst not exactly earth-shattering, is really very pleasant and the jaunty Orange Juice song Consolation Prize is performed live with Edwyn Collins himself at Glasgow Barrowlands in August, 1990. Also excellent is Roddy's performance of Do I Love You, which was originally from the 1990 Red Hot & Blue compilation, an album where contemporary artists recorded their renditions of Cole Porter songs, with all proceeds going to AIDS charities. Unfortunately, after this decent selection of 'B'-sides, we then get six versions of Good Morning Britain which, to be candid, you would have to be a masochist to sit through all of them. For the sake of hearing everything on the album, I've done just that and, although I still think it's a great song, I also believe I could go without hearing it again for a long, long time. The Good Morning Britain-fest on the bonus disc is, easily, the worst thing about this whole re-issue which, given the quality of the original album, really is a let-down.