Saturday, October 31, 2015
Underachievers Please Try Harder - Camera Obscura
Merge MRG 239
I was very unhappy to read that Carey Lander died of cancer a few weeks ago. She was the keyboard player for Camera Obscura (she is wearing the white hat in the cover pictures for this album.) She also did the string arrangements and sang back-up vocals on this record. I admire this band and have ever since I first heard "Suspended From Class" from this record on KXLU a decade ago. I bought the CD and loved it so much that I bought it on vinyl as well. I like all their albums but this is by far my favorite and I have to admit the main reason I love it so much is that it reminds me of their fellow Scots, Belle and Sebastian. I've never heard any record that sounds more like Belle and Sebastian without actually being by Belle and Sebastian. Even the cover art looks like a Belle and Sebastian record, hardly a surprise since head Belle, Stuart Murdoch, snapped the pictures. I don't mean to imply that the album is blatantly imitative of the Belles, it is more that it shares common themes and the splendid chamber pop sound that made those early Belle and Sebastian records so magical. The record opens with "Suspended From Class" which with its school metaphor, romantic awkwardness and self-deprecating lyrics immediately evokes early Stuart Murdoch. Tracyanne Campbell has a low key, reserved style of singing but her voice is extremely lovely and sucks me right into the song. Lander's graceful piano solo is supplemented by Nigel Baillie's delicate trumpet lines giving the song a delightful sound that is right out of the Belles' playbook. "Keep It Clean" manages to be twee and coolly cutting at the same time, another early Murdoch trait. The song is propulsive but retains a chamber pop flavor driven by Lander's organ and Kenny McKeeve's reverb laden guitar runs. "A Sisters Social Agony" is a tender portrait of an indie-minded adolescent with all the corresponding angst that comes with. You don't hear many pop songs that mention the film director Mike Leigh. The music evokes early 1960s girl groups and 1950s doo-wop. Campbell's dreamy vocal carries the song. "Teenager" is one of my favorite tracks on the record. It is addressed to a boy who is infatuated with a self-centered girl and the singer's attempt to woo him back. The song opens with a beat group style guitar run before assuming the shuffling melody that drives the song. Campbell's vocal is particularly compelling on this tune. "Before You Cry" is a laid back break-up song. It has a jaunty country-flavored melody which suits its rather callous lyrics. John Henderson takes the vocal on the early part of the song before being joined by Campbell for the chorus. She sings the final verse. "Your Picture" critiques a narcissistic friend. Henderson sings this one as well with a lugubrious vocal given extra depth with reverb. Campbell sings a subdued harmony vocal in parts of the song. The song is mostly supported by acoustic guitar. It reminds me of early Leonard Cohen. Side two opens with "Number One Son" which describes more adolescent romance woes. It is another one of my favorite cuts. It is a joyous track with a propulsive beat and a catchy melody that is fleshed out with strings and Baillie's trumpet. It is the song that sounds the most like Belle and Sebastian on the record. The poppy, upbeat sound continues with "Let Me Go Home" which is about a wild party with Motown records spinning, guests drinking and couples making out on the stairs. Henderson sings lead and Lander's piano and McKeeve's jangly guitar runs carry the song which is the happiest track on the album. Pure pop bliss. The album slows down for "Books Written For Girls" which chronicles a mismatched romance with misleading appearances and false expectations. Campbell's plaintive vocal is more emotional than is typical on this record. I find it entrancing. There is a lovely steel guitar solo from Wullie Gamble and some sensitive piano playing from Lander. "Knee Deep at the NPL" describes a fun winter's night out dancing that ends with a couple falling in love. The NPL refers to National Pop League which was a revered music club in Glasgow. Campbell has another evocative vocal on this track which is bolstered by a gentle flute solo from Americo Alhucena. Henderson joins the vocal at the end of the song for a charming polyphonic section. The album concludes with "Lunar Sea" which is a poetic love song. Campbell and Henderson sing this gentle song as a duet. I enjoy McKeeve's rolling guitar riffs throughout the song and the chamber pop sound that makes this track a lovely conclusion for the album. I adore this album, it is one of my favorites of the 2000s. I've listened to it a lot in the past ten years and I still find it intensely engaging and charming. I understand why Camera Obscura moved away from this style as their career progressed, they weren't going to get anywhere sounding so much like Belle and Sebastian. Heck even Belle and Sebastian do not sound this much like Belle and Sebastian anymore. I don't consider it a derivative record though, I think the band absorbed the Belles' distinctive style and gave it their own interpretation. The record is made with intelligence and grace and even though I'm far removed from the youthful perspective that permeates the lyrics, I still find that I relate to it deeply. Some of that can be attributed to the Tracyanne Campbell's voice which makes the words seem more significant and touching than they might be on paper. The musical setting also enhances the lyrics, it invests them with feeling and sensitivity. Carey Lander was a big part of this. I think her keyboards were the heart of the band's musical sound. Much of the beauty of their music comes from the tender and thoughtful expressiveness in her playing. It will be an difficult hole to fill now that she is gone, but I do hope they find a way to carry on. This one is obviously recommended for Belle and Sebastian fans.