[22 February 2004]
Camera Obscura are a six-piece Scottish collective that falls somewhere between early Belle and Sebastian and modern-day Trembling Blue Stars. Being that their sound and image are so close to that of Belle and Sebastian, it comes as no surprise that B&S frontman Stuart Murdoch not only co-produced their first single, but also is responsible for the photography that graces their sophomore release, Under Achievers Please Try Harder. As you can probably predict, if you’re a Belle and Sebastian fan, you’ll find a lot to like here. Really, anyone with an appreciation for a certain kind of bed-sit, student indie-pop will enjoy this album.
Unfortunately, one of the genre’s (is “bed-sit indie-pop” a genre?) major flaws—a certain forgettable, cute blandness—sometimes bogs down the LP, but when Camera Obscura are on pace, which is thankfully often, they are able to create songs of rich, familiar imagery, and effortlessly hummable melodies. Throw in some very capable string and horn arrangements and you have a very enjoyable pop symphony at work.
Under Achievers Please Try Harder, starts strongly with “Suspended from Class” and “Keep It Clean”, two songs of student romance so well executed and artfully sung that they immediately whet the appetite for what the rest of the album might have to offer. Of course, it always helps when you get lyrics as clever and true as these: “You’ve taken to phoning my house when you’re drunk / Confessing all your love”. And later, on the Brian Wilson-esque “A Sister’s Social Agony”: “Play indie rock if that’s what you want / Quote Mike Leigh films it will turn them all on”. Unfortunately, Camera Obscura never quite reach these heights again throughout the course of the record, but there are still highlights aplenty amidst a couple of doses of filler.
“Let Me Go Home” has a strident Motown-meets-The Boy with the Arab Strap feel, as John Henderson takes over vocal duties from Tracyanne Campbell, to sing a song about seduction and sex, while Campbell returns for “Knee Deep at the NPL” (National Pop League, happily enough), where a walk home in the snow leads to flirtations and romance.
The album does have its weaker moments. “Teenager” and “Before You Cry”, while pretty and enjoyable, don’t have the emotional weight or lyrical dexterity of their fellow songs, while “Your Picture” suffers from not having a strong enough melody to match its fine lyrics. Despite these shortcomings, the songs are still enjoyable, but their perceived quality is downgraded by association with some of the more stellar cuts on hand here.
All in all, even the less-than-great songs on Under Achievers Please Try Harder are still better than most of what you hear out there these days, and it’s hard not to recommend the album despite a couple of lackluster cuts. If you’re a fan of Belle and Sebastian, Under Achievers Please Try Harder makes a perfect counterpart to, say, Tigermilk, and you’d be hard-pressed not to enjoy yourself amidst its indie-pop finger-snapping and Isobel Campbell-like vocals.
Not having heard the Scottish group’s 2002 debut LP, Biggest, Bluest Hi-Fi, it’s hard to say whether or not Camera Obscura are growing as a band enough to overcome some of the shortcomings in their work, but they seem like an intelligent lot, and the potential that these songs hint at is considerable. Legendary DJ John Peel saw fit to acknowledge them as one of 2001’s bands to watch, and one can see why after hearing them. Although this promising Scottish sextet are not yet hitting their full stride on their second release, their future seems bright.
The CD also contains a video for “Teenager” that you can view by popping it in your PC or Mac.