Camera Obscura: Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi

Michael Beaumont

Camera Obscura

Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2004-10-12
UK Release Date: 2004-01-26

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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.