AZTEC CAMERA is a new band that's going decidedly against the vogue for exotic hairdos and slick, synchronized synthesizers. The quartet, led by Scottish singer-songwriter Roddy Frame, makes thoughtful, moody, largely acoustic music.
On "High Land, Hard Rain," Frame has set himself up as a sort of pop confessional poet. His songs, mostly about meetings and disappointed partings, are an intriguing mix of cryptic personal references and odd poetic phrasings. Combined with the band's subdued folk-jazz sound, the effect is like a poetry reading at a coffeehouse.
Frame's frail, reedy voice remains melancholy and resigned no matter how bright the instrumental track behind him, an appropriate tone for his vaguely foreboding lyrics.
The final cut, "Back on Board," is particularly attractive, with a warm, rolling guitar/percussion sound and an irresistible gospel-tinged chorus, ending with Frame alone on his acoustic guitar.
While Aztec Camera's mix is not instantly accessible, it rewards repeated listening. ALTERED IMAGES, on the other hand, is another in a line of bands created for video -- the singers and musicians seem to have been chosen for their photogenic, not musical, qualities. Lead singer Claire Grogan -- looking like an '80s Edie Sedgwick on the album cover -- is a visual treat but provides precious little on the aural end. With her high- pitched, emotionless cooing, Grogan sounds like Blondie's Debbie Harry on helium. On its second album, "Bite," Altered Images produces neutered new wave, electronic bubblegum that won't stick to the roof of your mind. Although heavyweight pop producers Mike Chapman and Tony Visconti contribute their distinctive gloss to four tracks each, the band fails to establish its own personality. Chapman seems to be trying to repeat his success with Blondie. "Don't Talk to Me About Love" clones "Heart of Glass," down to the pounding drums and shimmering keyboard textures. "Change of Heart" exhibits a sunny '60s pop exuberance, with its roller-rink organ fills and skipping beat. But for the most part, the melodies are so slight as to be almost subliminal. Visconti drenches his tracks in syrupy strings and exotic percussion, occasionally injecting some cocktail-lounge sax into the mix. "Thinking About You," with its dreamy electronic pulse and cascading harps, has an enchanting trance-like sound, if you can ignore Grogan's squeaky toy shrills and the munchkin chorus behind her. No new ground is broken here. This stuff is like pallid '70s disco tracks gussied up with '80s synthesizer sheen. AZTEC CAMERA -- "High Land, Hard Rain" (Sire 238991), appearing Sunday at 9 and midnight at the 9:30 Club. ALTERED IMAGES -- "Bite" (Portrait BFR 38585), appearing Tuesday at 10 at the 9:30 Club.