CAMERA OBSCURA: BIGGEST BLUEST HI-FI (2001)
1) Happy New Year; 2) Eighties Fan; 3) Houseboat; 4) Shine Like A New Pin; 5) Pen And Notebook; 6) Swimming Pool; 7) Anti-Western; 8) Let's Go Bowling; 9) I Don't Do Crowds; 10) The Sun On His Back; 11) Double Feature; 12) Arrangements Of Shapes And Space.
Although Camera Obscura got their cozy little break largely through the endorsement of Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch, to whose music they have been compared ever since, the band itself actually formed in the exact same year as Belle & Sebastian — they just had to wait five years before being offered a record contract. Maybe the formation was a direct consequence of the effect that Tigermilk had on fellow Glaswegians, or maybe it just so happened that in 1996, Glasgow was hit by a melancholia-radiating beam from outer space, but, whatever the circumstances, here we are with yet another sweet, sad, and fragile indie pop outfit on our hands.
If anything, you could think of it as the time-required female counterpart response to Belle & Sebastian. In the place of Stuart Murdoch, we have Tracyanne Campbell, a slightly autistic / somnambulist soul with a sweet, instantaneously likable voice, a hipster-approved penchant for all things retro, and a deep love for cleanly produced guitar sounds (everything from acoustic strum to electric jangle) and chamber music string arrangements, which Murdoch is only too happy to help her arrange. She writes all the songs, sings on most of them, and plays rhythm guitar, which more or less saves us the trouble of memorizing the names of five other people in the band, but for the sake of fairness, let us also mention second guitarist Kenny McKeeve, whose plinking Fenders and minstrelish mandolins are just as responsible for the overall effect.
First things first: there may actually be a substantial reason why Camera Obscura had to search so long for a record contract — unlike Murdoch, Campbell is not a naturally gifted songwriter. She is quite good at expressing her feelings, but not at converting them into exceptional chord sequences or vocal hooks. Three or four listens into the album, and I was still unable to tell any of the songs apart, even if the actual melodies, tempos, and arrangements do have slight differences. Everything seems centered around the lyrics — the words seem well thought-out, whereas most of the melodies sound like they were quickly tossed off on the spot (rather odd for a band who had spent five years working out their schtick before finally crossing the studio threshold).
Second, the atmosphere is certainly not unique. The Belle & Sebastian comparison naturally comes to mind first, even without knowing how tight the real connection is; but really, there are dozens of twee-pop outfits out there that sound very close to Camera Obscura, and unless you are able to figure out that particularly subtle special something that makes the art of Tracyanne Campbell hit its very own nerve, this music will never be worth a second replay to you. (As a ready-made example, the arrival of Allo Darlin' in 2010, with its own retro-favoring, graciously fragile leading lady Elizabeth Morris, put the reputational future of Camera Obscura in dire straits — at least, I have stumbled upon a few comparisons that were not particularly favorable towards the Glaswegian as pitted against the Australian).
But unique or not unique, I find the atmosphere all but impossible to dislike. Everything passes by like separate similar-themed movements of a single soundtrack to a forty-five minute early autumn walk through the park. Fresh breeze, chirping birdies, golden leaves, occasional joggers, carps in the pond, headphones, the works. Not a single «rough» moment on the album to pinch your emotions too hard, but that would only disrupt the pleasure of walking. Even the drummer makes sure to use as many brushes and soft cymbal tapping as possible so as not to make even the fastest songs on here «rock» in any possible manner: Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi is a gentle mood shot for all those who aren't too much in a hurry.
Campbell's style is certainly melancholic, but still, much lighter than that of Murdoch — primarily because the music of Camera Obscura is generally free of the bitterness and poorly concealed anger at the world that permeates Murdoch's art. The lyrics, naturally, are mostly about relationships, failed or holding, but they never get judgemental or out-of-hand. The singing shows no range whatsoever (sometimes it feels as if she's packing everything into one note, let alone one octave), but whatever tone there is, it feels completely natural, a special sort of «cool, but warm» intonation that suggests friendliness and loneliness at the same time. And McKeeve's little lead melodies, ringing out in the background, suit that tone perfectly.
Individual songs are not worth discussing; the only thing I can say is that the music is very much improved when there is a steady mid-tempo rhythm section pushing it forward (ʽShine Like A New Pinʼ, ʽSwimming Poolʼ, ʽI Don't Do Crowdsʼ, etc.), and tends to get very boring on slow-moving acoustic ballads like ʽLet's Go Bowlingʼ, no matter how many cool references to Clark Gable she inserts in those lyrics (although, of course, if the song helped even one fan to go see a Clark Gable movie, the album's rating has to be pushed up for educational value). The final number is a waltzing instrumental that tries to go out with a bang, adding an unexpected outburst of colorfully distorted «acid» guitars — bit of a cherry on the tart for those who like their indie pop with a psychedelic flavor, but, of course, much too late to drag the record out of its «background muzak» state, and besides, who of us could be overwhelmed with a simple spiralling psychedelic waltz in 2001, when it'd been thirty years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play?
To conclude this with a brief title discussion, the album is indeed hi-fi (fortunately for us all, Camera Obscura care about sonic hygiene), but the «biggest» and «bluest» bits are self-aggrandizing hyperbolic tricks — this music isn't particularly blue («autumn gold» is much more like it), and it certainly isn't big. And these are the good points, because big and blue tend to sound fake these days, whereas Camera Obscura sound sincere and likeable. I do not remember how even a single song goes on the album, but I still give it a thumbs up for sheer therapy effect. A pretty good record to play if you're in the mood of killing someone.
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