Let’s first acknowledge the two-ton pachyderm in the room. Camera Obscura is a seven piece from Glasgow. Yes, like the other seven piece from Glasgow with a touch more name recognition. Stuart Murdoch (familiar?) produced the stellar single “Eighties Fan”-including the sweeping string arrangements-and has been romantically linked to front woman Tracyanne Campbell. Did I mention that Richard Colburn once warmed the drum throne? Outside of media’s overwhelming tendency to address the likeness to Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura is much more than a little brother in the shadows of a relative indie rock behemoth. Steeped in the early rock traditions of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, Camera Obscura brews a blend of lush and traditional indie-pop; dusted with a touch of twee. Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi is the perfect soundscape to a post-brunch Sunday spent flipping through review copies at the Strand while eyeing fellow bed-headed lit-crit fans through the lenses of your tortoise shell frames.
The seeds for Camera Obscura were sowed in the dorm of songwriters Tracyanne Campbell and John Henderson, who first collaborated while collegiate cohorts. They were then joined by Gavin Dunbar on bass and autoharp. Colburn provided percussion for initial live performances and was later replaced by Lee Thomson in 2000. The current incarnation of the band also includes Kenny McKeeve on guitar, Carey Lander on keys, and Nigel Baillie on trumpet.
Once limited to the import section of well-stocked indie music emporiums, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi (which was first released on Spain’s Elefant Records in 2001) is now available wherever you do your real time music browsing and purchasing. The success of Underachievers Try Harder (who’s single “Teenager” appeared in the WB’s Gilmore Girls) firmed up the bands reputation in the states and prompted Merge to grant a proper US release to their debut. The album, engineered by Geoff Allan, who has worked with the likes of Mogwai and Teenage Fanclub, offers hints of the band’s lyrical beginnings and displays the musical foundation built upon in their stellar sophomore release. Bolstered by two bonus tracks (“Shine Like A New Pin”, and “Let’s Go Bowling”), Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi is an excellent introduction to the band.
The album opens with “Happy New Year”- a velvet wrap-around with tasteful embellishments and jangly baubles. Imagine if VU were inspired by caffeine and chewing gum instead of the grittier muses of rock and roll- that best imparts the bright and shimmering guitars and fluid interplay of all the instrumentation in this release. “Eighties Fan”, the albums first single, brought them to the attention of John Peel who went on to select the song as the #8 single of the year for his Festive 50 list (and propelled the band into relative indie rock fame). Tracyanne pleads with the gripping heartache so representative of unripe love. She pines to her obstinate lover, “I’m gonna tell you something good about yourself/I say it now and I’ll never say it ‘bout no one else”.
“Shine Like A New Pin”, another stand-out, starts with the same opening chord progression as “Take the Skinheads Bowling”, though instead of a punk anthem it echoes the quiet wishing of the rabbity chap in homeroom. “If all your wishes in the world came true/You’d be as good as new”. Are you lonely? Isolated and misunderstood? This song speaks for all the tormented thoughts in your head. “Crestfallen and boys are boring/I don’t know which way I’m going anymore/And I can’t be sure”. A perfect musical bridge, filled with a glinting guitar solo makes this one of the strongest songs in Camera’s catalog.
At some point in a fledgling adult life, you play the role of lovelorn chump. You spend your pocket cash on Captain Jack and scratch away your heartache in a marble notebook. Regardless of it’s destructive tendencies, you pine for lost love and all of the loneliness it entails. “Pen and Notebook” sums up this shattered effect best…”You saved for a bass guitar/You know you made a mistake when you first saw Marr/With your pen and notebook you blow me away/It’s the smallest words that we can’t say/Your favorite color is that of red wine/Which brings me around to your favorite pastime”. The lyrics emote the vice grips of a relationship tainted with hurt and swallowed pride.
John leads in “Anti-Western”, tangling with Tracey as he tries to convince her to go home with him. She taunts that he “listens to rubbish/I really despise” and he counters, I’m taking your boots off/I’ll keep them with mine”. This is a fun rock song, reminiscent of the writings of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. The Bacharach horns razz along in response and highlight the bands flirtations with the sounds of the sixties. Campbell and Henderson are a honey-dipped version of Hazelwood and (Nancy) Sinatra.
Another favorite, “I Don’t Do Crowds”, could well be my personal anthem. “I laughed out loud/Can you all see that it was sadness/Please come to save me from myself again/to shield me, to disguise/In my heart lies a secret”. As an introvert who plays a convincing extrovert, I can relate to the myopic contemplation and contradiction of urges expressed through the characters in the song. “Arrangements of Shapes and Space” is a sliding instrumental that showcases McKeeve and Campbell’s guitar interplay and Dunbar’s melodic noodling on bass. The piece soars in a plugged-in crescendo and then ebbs into a quiet and unassuming resolution.
In Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, Camera Obscura does a great job giving a timid voice to unripe love, confusion, alienation, and longing (all delivered though cleverly pedantic lyrics) while building a framework of shiny strumming and glimmering indie-pop perfection.