Listening to Camera Obscura is pure effortless fun. They’re a band content with not making you work for it. Pop the CD in and you’re immediately enjoying yourself, such is the accessibility of their music. The newest American release, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, is actually their debut album, preceding this year’s excellent Underachievers Please Try Harder by two years. It is this 2002 debut that inspired the late John Peel to call them one of that year’s brightest hopes.
If you’ve read anything at all about Camera Obscura, you’ve no doubt come across comparisons to Belle and Sebastian, and rightfully so. Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch produces Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, and both bands call Scotland home. The comparisons don’t stop there, however. Camera Obscura shares the same finger-snapping, guitar-twanging, indie-pop cleverness that makes Belle and Sebastian so loved. And while Tracyann Campbell doesn’t quite measure up to Murdoch as a lyricist, she uses her own style to her advantage.
Like Everything But the Girl’s Tracy Thorn, Campbell writes lyrics of such direct emotional honesty that to fall in love with and inhabit the songs is inevitable. Camera Obscura is the kind of band that so often grace lovers’ mix tapes because they speak without need for ambivalent metaphor or constrained emotion. That’s not to say that the lyrics lack subtlety. They simply frame their more ambiguous thoughts into structures so compelling and familiar that they almost always ring true. Of course, it helps to have singers such as these. Twee pop has no need for histrionics. Like Bernard Sumner, Tracyanne Campbell and John Henderson work within their limited range to create a sort of everyman vibe. It could be your sister singing these songs.
In “Pen and Notebook”, Campbell sings, “You saved for a bass guitar / You knew you’d made a mistake when you saw Marr”, the implied feelings of inadequacy in the reference to the Smiths guitarist underscoring just how engagingly accessible Campbell’s lyrics are. There is so little arrogance, so little egotism in these songs that it’s as if you’ve stumbled upon a secret treasure, one never endowed with a sense of haughtiness.
Although nearly every song on Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi is a gem, “Eighties Fan” seems to have the DNA of the entire LP. Opening with a drum line straight out of the Ronette’s “Be My Baby”, Campbell goes on to document the story of a girl who feels out of place, and consequently is old before her time. Seeing a poor self-esteem as the catalyst for her acting out, Campbell exclaims, “I’m gonna tell you something good about yourself”, and suddenly Campbell transforms from the girl singing about boys and bands, to a big sister entrusted with the task of helping her sibling. It’s a touching song, and once again one that scores points for Campbell’s sweet, honest songwriting.
As refreshing as Campbell’s lyrics are, the music that accompanies them is also first-rate. Led by guitarist Kenny McKeeve and Oraganist Lindsay Boyd, they are ably backed by Gavin Dunbar (bass) and Lee Thompson (drums). They’re a deceptively simple backing band, but right when you think the music is pedestrian, along comes a guitar solo like the one in “Shine Like a New Pin”, and you realize that Camera Obscura are more than the sum of their parts. By the time the organ solo follows it, you’re too caught up in toe-tapping, blissful pop that you could hardly care anyway.
There is a line in “Pen and Notebook” that admits, “With your pen and notebook you’ve blown me away / It’s the smallest words we cannot say”. It’s exactly that feeling that makes Camera Obscura so easy to love.