Sunday, March 16, 2014

Camera Obscura: Underachievers Please Try Harder (2003)



With their second album, Glasgow's second finest (we may as well be frank here) soar past their obvious origins. It's true Camera Obscura continue to walk through doors opened by Belle & Sebastian, their debut Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi having essentially been an official homage, but in certain places Underachievers Please Try Harder is something of its own: a modern baroque classic, suggesting Nico, Dusty Springfield and even Leonard Cohen as much as any of the group's peers.

Although the band's songwriting would reach its peak a few years after this, they have taken here a gigantic step forward. The music breathes more than previously, able to get lost in a slow, folky strum with a sweet lilt, taking it at times as far as pure country, but also in the sonic mysteries of the best '60s pop, never melodramatically asserting itself or making ill-advised attempts to turn fixation into gimmickry. The arrangements are focused, the melodies are meant to invite surrender, and it's all Sunday nights, and the last dance of the prom -- and the joys, agonies, mornings-after in between.

Yet as so often with this band, the performance that leaves you reeling is that of Tracyanne Campbell, whose voice is the source of every emotional revelation and achingly human pratfall documented here. She seems to be reliving everyone's young heartbreaks at once yet with a thoroughly adult longing and wit, both because they come from the good-humored place of someone modest enough to falsely claim she doesn't know her elbow from her arse and because she, like so many of us, is sufficiently introspective to have gone over this stuff over and over and over again in her head. She spends Underachievers dealing with pretentious types, from man-children and fake feminists to Mike Leigh-quoting mean girls to boys "who went from Mod to Ted."

There's self-deprecation, like when she deals with a crush on a teacher in the hypnotic "Suspended from Class," but there's mostly the coolheaded wisdom that no one in their adolescence is capable of and that every adolescent needs to hear. We find her resigned and reflective when dodging a drug-addicted ex on the stunningly beautiful "Keep It Clean," calm but subtly broken when pep talking an indie rocking younger sibling on "A Sister's Social Agony." Consistently Campbell's words and vocals alike are beautiful and tough, deeply felt, raw and in-the-moment -- like the best of those singers this band clearly idolizes. There's nothing artificial about their throwback; if anything, the likes of Phil Spector and Marianne Faithfull taught them how best to expose the rawest emotions to the broadest collection of people.

The record unfortunately screeches to a bit of a standstill when, on four cuts, Campbell steps aside and lets John Henderson sing. He isn't bad, actually, but sounds so thin and weak next to Campbell's outrageous brilliance as a performer that it's almost always a buzzkill when he steps up. Listen enough and eventually you get a kick out of the Songs of Leonard Cohen pastiche "Your Picture" and the sweet, swinging "Lunar Sea," but his songs undoubtedly peak when, toward the end of "Before You Cry," Campbell steps in to offer her most devastating bit of optimism ever: "You feel a little sad tonight but you'll be all right."

That sentence could be the Camera Obscura manifesto, and gets beautifully to the essence of their appeal. This album happens to contain most likely their two greatest songs. The theremin doodle "Teenager" is very much in the mold of a Beautiful Music dilution of a 007 theme, but its melody lets Campbell launch into the stratosphere with all of the scolding, yearning and frustration its title implies. By the time its chorus hits, it seems increasingly to be belted not just from her heart but from yours. "Books Written for Girls" may be even stronger; slowed down and minimal, rolling its eyes at poseurs but here placing extra emphasis on how the coldness and calculation of the tragically hip hurts other people as it chronicles the messy self-evaluation after the end of a relationship with a prick, it is rumored in some quiet quarters to be an attack on Stuart Murdoch, stating independence against any attempt to make Campbell and her band proteges of Murdoch's almost assembly-lined peculiarity.

I'm not sure that I believe that, frankly, but it's possible, and what's relevant to us is that indeed Camera Obscura achieve something that Belle & Sebastian never has on this record and their next one: they launch, like few other bands aside from Everything But the Girl, into a level of genuine human maturity that actually justifies the fawning melancholy of their throwback-heavy music. There's nothing quite like the soul-crushed but empowering way Campbell sings "he will disappoint you" and "I think separation is okay" and "you're not a teenager, so don't act like one." It's melancholy in a way that, like all such sonic thrill rides, is a joy to hear and to use within one's own life, but there is much more brimming underneath -- anger, hurt, pain, fear, want. It's pretty, precious even, but it's never cute. Not if you listen carefully enough.

Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi (2001)
My Maudlin Career (2009)
Desire Lines (2013)

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