PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Camera Obscura: Under Achievers Please Try Harder

Michael Beaumont

Camera Obscura

Under Achievers Please Try Harder

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2004-01-20
UK Release Date: 2003-09-15

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.