Thursday, January 23, 2014

Camera Obscura: Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi (2001)

(Andmoresound [orig] / Merge [rerelease])


Owing more to fellow Glasgow artist Stuart Murdoch than to the punchy girl group pop that would inform the aesthetic of their more accomplished later albums, the debut by Camera Obscura is a melodicist's dream but also a surprisingly cold, bleak affair. It piles one midtempo song atop another -- some lovely, some rather dull -- and all of its beauty is in the psychodrama instigated by Tracyanne Campbell. Discovering Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi only in the last few months, I must say it's given me a bit more of an understanding of what sourced the radical drabness of their 2009 record My Maudlin Career.

The album never betters its opening moment, musically or especially lyrically. "Happy New Year" invites little celebration but immediately exposes more heart and truth than some indie-pop writers will for their whole careers: "I am softer than my face would suggest / At times like this I'm at my lowest ebb." What else is there to say, really? Many of the songs feel rather dirgey despite their twee-pop pedigree -- "Pen and Notebook," for starters -- but you put up with a lot here simply because over and above the arrangements, the vocals, words and harmonies make up so much of the difference. A key moment is when "Eighties Fan" opens with a drum-machine "Be My Baby" rip then keens instead of swooning, or when the big sweet duet "Houseboat" turns out to be so mournful you want to hug it. It's not a party record, okay? But nor is If You're Feeling Sinister -- a less flippant comparison than it might seem.

Serving as producer, Murdoch makes little room for the obvious differences in performance style between Camera Obscura and his own band, Belle & Sebastian -- which is supremely ironic since B&S's work would soon make room for sprightlier, bouncier Pursuits than ever before. For all ten cuts (twelve on the canonical expanded version), except during guitarist Kenny McKeeve's too-frequent intrusions, one's overriding takeaway is just wanting to know Campbell more, the same way you wanted to know Paul Westerberg or Ray Davies or Tracey Thorn or, hell, Murdoh more as personalities -- articulate, painfully sad, painfully withdrawn but full of wit and deadpan, she is a joy to listen to, making something stunningly honest and valuably warm of her alienation.

That's the major catch-22 of this album, and of Camera Obscura. On their next two albums the songwriting would get stronger, the melodies catchier, the production loftier, the band immeasurably better. But there's never again a moment of pure intimacy like "Happy New Year." Campbell was already so fully formed as a lyricist and singer here, and the absence of distraction makes this perhaps the best and fullest portrait of her artistry. The special moment of untouched yearning, without the deliberate and self-conscious nostalgia of the Merge and 4AD albums, makes it hard to hold this record's flaws against it -- they help make it a reticently cathartic but never indulgent embodiment of a lovingly hopeless mood, and the beating heart of a true-believing pop composer.

My Maudlin Career (2009)
Desire Lines (2013)

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