Camera Obscura – Underachievers Please Try Harder

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Scotland has to have one of the best “excellent bands per capita” numbers in the world. How can such a small country produce so much great music? The Jesus and Mary Chain; Aztec Camera; Teenage Fanclub; Orange Juice; ballboy; the Trash Can Sinatras; Belle and Sebastian; Yatsura; Idlewild; Close Lobsters; Franz Ferdinand; and of course, Camera Obscura. And this isn’t even factoring in the bands that I don’t much care for but lots of other people do:  the Pastels; the Vaselines; the Soup Dragons; the Beta Band. Astonishing!

What I Think of This Album

The comparisons to Belle and Sebastian are obvious but misplaced. It doesn’t help that Stuart Murdoch produced their debut and that he is credited as photographer on this album, and of course, both bands are from Scotland and play fragile indie-pop. But Camera Obscura is more grounded, and there is a sincerity to their songs completely lacking from what Belle and Sebastian dishes out.

Which isn’t to say that Camera Obscura doesn’t know how to have fun – the chorus to “Suspended from Class” is “I don’t know my elbow from my ass,” after all, and then there is that album title – but one listen to Tracyanne Campbell’s (and Carey Lander’s) vocals and you won’t find much in common with Murdoch’s mocking manner. The band I compare Camera Obscura to is descendant Allo Darlin’. The songs here are light and delicate, with intricate but not fussy arrangements and stunningly gorgeous vocals. Campbell offers up endearing self-deprecating tidbits between her explorations of love, heartbreak, romance, and alcohol.

“Number One Son” is a pleasing fast shuffle; “Suspended from Class” is gentle and humorous, with some subtle trumpet; and Campbell sounds truly upset on “Keep It Clean.” The band adopts a 1950s vocal group style on “A Sister’s Social Agony,” a legit bit of sibling advice. Campbell takes someone to task on tom-heavy “Teenager.”

It seems a crime to take any tracks away from Campbell, but the truth is that the John Henderson (drummer) songs are also excellent. “Before You Cry” is a touching country number (with very pretty harmonies by Campbell and Lander). Henderson provides a double-take inducing, note-perfect Leonard Cohen vocal on “Your Picture.” Meanwhile, the band tackles soul with Henderson singing lead on “Let Me Go Home.”

Campbell shines on the sad “Books Written for Girls” (“You probably thought I had more upstairs / I disappoint you”), and is charmingly vulnerable on the organ-touched “Knee Deep at the NPL” (“How can I be falling in love with you?”). The album proper ends with “Lunar Sea,” featuring some excellent trumpet work and swooping vocals. This is a great Sunday morning or sunny afternoon album.

My CD adds on a couple of extra tracks:  “I Don’t Want to See You” and “Footloose and Fancy Free.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“Knee Deep at the NPL” is sweet and this world needs some more goddamn sweetness.

Release Date

August, 2003

The Cover Art

I’m a big fan of the video camera, the hats, and the glasses. I think the teddy bear is overkill and overly precious. I like the font and coloring used for the band name and title; I am less into the song titles in the bottom right hand corner. But overall, this is a good cover.

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