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by Jeremy Sampson on Sep 13, 2004
Go ahead. Just try and write about Scottish septet Camera Obscura without mentioning Belle and Sebastian. I tried to do it. Really I did. (Or did I? Perhaps this is nothing but a cheap literary device. I'll never tell.) Before my attempt, I flipped through the band's press packet from Merge Records to see how far other writers made it. The first one made it to the fourth paragraph, not bad. Next one, first sentence. First sentence. Second sentence. Fourth sentence. Third paragraph. A clean sweep. In the end, I realized it just doesn't make any sense to avoid the B&S comparison- in fact, it serves as the perfect point of reference for the uninitiated.
So, here goes. Camera Obscura sound a lot like Belle and Sebastian, particularly early-era B&S albums like and If You're Feeling Sinister. By the transitive property of musical taste, if you like one of these bands, you're pretty darn sure to like the other. Despite a name that translates to Hidden Camera, there's hardly anything concealed about the connection between the two groups. Both hail from Glasgow and feature a wide array of musicians doling out breezy and whimsical indie pop. Formal connections also abound. Belle and Sebastian drummer Richard Colburn played on some early Camera Obscura singles, and B&S frontman Stuart Murdoch produced parts of their first full-length, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, which included the moderate UK hit "Eighties Fan", in 2002.
The group was formed in 1996 by original members Tracyanne Campbell, percussionist John Henderson and bassist Gavin Dunbar. Campbell is the lead guitarist and singer, with sugary vocals that sound as if they gently float out of the speakers and directly into your ears. Now there are seven members in the band, including a pianist and trumpeter. Early this year, Camera Obscura made the big leap across the pond and released their first stateside album, the brilliantly-named Underachievers Please Try Harder, to mostly rave reviews. Its tunes are both sad and sweet, hanging its hat on delightfully innocent lyrics-with-a-wink, sophisticated melodies and, of course, a collection of little guitar and vocal hooks that will have you yearning for that repeat button. The album also borrows from country and folk, though never strays far from its pop homestead.
Now for the inevitable section of this review in which the writer asserts that the band in question is not just a carbon copy of the more famous band and is worth seeing on its own merits. Commencing now:
The band certainly doesn't seem to mind all the Belle and Sebastian comparisons. Campbell told Rockpile Magazine earlier this year: "If a journalist says we sound like Belle and Sebastian, and that makes some kid go out and buy our record, then that's good, so long as that kid is able to listen to our record and genuinely like what she hears. I'm perfectly aware the music we make isn't particularly groundbreaking or unique. That's not what it's about for me. I just want to make the music that I enjoy, and that the band enjoys, and then in turn the man in the street will enjoy. To say that might seem like we're not ambitious, but that's not the case. We just know where we stand."
Of course, Camera Obscura does stand out apart from B&S in its own way. Their music is a bit sparser and less dramatic in scope, and sticks more to the classic 60s garage pop sound, with hints of Motown, as a musical foundation. The album is consistently soft, without ever turning into fluff. Belle and Sebastian depend more on musical peaks and valleys and have evolved away from their breezy beginnings just enough to be classified as moderately different. But if you're a fan of their early works or, hell, just good old affecting and elegant pop music, don't miss your chance to see Camera Obscura's first San Francisco appearance.
by Jeremy Sampson on Sep 13, 2004