Picks and Pans Review: Knife

updated 11/05/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/05/1984 01:00AM

Aztec Camera

Last year two new bands from Scotland, Aztec Camera and Big Country, became critics' darlings. With their traditional, acoustic bent, these groups seemed like a fresh breeze off the Hebrides to listeners suffering from the shock of computer drums and synthesizers. In the case of Aztec Camera, that praise was premature. The encomiums should have been saved for Knife, which markedly outshines their debut album, High Land, Hard Rain. Though Aztec Camera is a quartet, attention has rightfully focused on Roddy Frame, 20, the singer and lead guitarist in the group. While his voice is somewhat awkward, it catches you up in its fervor. Songwriter Frame creates skillfully turned lyrics, perhaps thanks to close contact with Elvis Costello. (Aztec Camera opened for Elvis on his 1983 U.S. tour.) Melodically, his songs are much richer on this album, especially the sweeping chord progression of The Back Door to Heaven and the slight Caribbean flavor of All I Need Is Everything. The apex of Knife is Just Like the USA, which combines elements of Elvis C. and Dire Straits. That's not surprising, since Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler produced Knife. Knopfler has clarified the muddy sound of the band's first record, while giving a sharper focus to Frame's songs. The music of Aztec Camera—quirky, moody and cerebral—is not for everyone, but it is heartening to see a young performer like Roddy Frame growing with such assurance. (Sire)

ANTHOLOGIES: THE SHIRELLES (1959-1967); DIONNE WARWICK (1962-1971)

Artistic freedom for a black female singing group like the Shirelles was nearly unheard of 25 years ago. Managers and record company chiefs decided what songs would get recorded and how much disc jockeys would be paid to play them. If they had had a savvy manager like Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., the quartet of classmates from Passaic, N.J. might have been more than a footnote in '60s pop. Instead, Shirley Owens, Doris Kenner, Beverly Lee and Addie Harris eventually wandered down more bizarre musical avenues. The earliest tune in this anthology, Dedicated to the One I Love, reflects the climate in 1959; the song's jive arrangement, like an Ink Spots number, suggests that black groups eager for radio airplay had to add tubs of starch and bleach to their music. A year later on Tonight's the Night, you can hear Shirley Owens' voice breaking free. The Shirelles, who became a mainstay of Murray the K's legendary Brooklyn Fox Theater revues, flourished at the beginning of the '60s with hits such as Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Mama Said, Soldier Boy and Foolish Little Girl. But the appeal is nostalgic, since many of these songs are diminished by sappy string additions. The most pleasing cuts, like Big John and Putty, give the women some rare elbow room. By 1963, with the Beatles and girl groups like the Chiffons and the Ronettes casting their shadows, the Shirelles began recycling their earlier hits as well as putting forth such ill-advised shlock as the theme from the film, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Hearing four girls from Jersey rendering this rubbish, in Spanish and Japanese, no less, is enough to make you plead, "Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be chanteuses."

That is, until you hear this Dionne Warwick double album, a retrospective of one of America's most gifted singers. With her sylphlike frame and majestic voice, Dionne, once a Shirelle stand-in, has been breaking hearts for 22 years. Burt Bacharach and Hal David generated 25 of the 28 songs on this collection, beginning with Don't Make Me Over in 1962. Listening to Dionne's impeccable interpretations and stunning glissandos, it is apparent that she would have made her mark on pop music even without their considerable aid. Such song titles as Walk on By, Anyone Who Had a Heart, Message to Michael and I Say a Little Prayer are a mere sampling of the musical gems in this treasury.

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