CAMERA OBSCURA: UNDERACHIEVERS PLEASE TRY HARDER (2003)
1) Suspended From Class; 2) Keep It Clean; 3) A Sisters Social Agony; 4) Teenager; 5) Before You Cry; 6) Your Picture; 7) Number One Son; 8) Let Me Go Home; 9) Books Written For Girls; 10) Knee Deep At The NPL; 11) Lunar Sea.
Posing for a stereotype is one thing, but the front sleeve photo on Camera Obscura's second album is something else: with all the hipster paraphernalia in the picture, it reminds me of the famous bit where Bruce Willis is busy choosing a suitable weapon in Pulp Fiction. That said, the photo totally matches the music, so why complain?
And anyway, ʽSuspended From Classʼ is easily the best song Belle & Sebastian never wrote in their life, because they kind of missed that window — Murdoch used to have great skill in writing songs from the point of view of an «anti-nostalgizing» school graduate, but Tracyanne Campbell can still write songs from the point of view of an authentic schoolgirl. It's fairly easy to make fun of the song, but I do not know how it would be possible to feel disgusted or irritated by it. Yes, it fits into the stereotypical image («lonesome autistic girl develops an intellectual crush on a potential soulmate»), but she gets into that character so well — and, for what it's worth, the "I don't know my elbow from my arse" chorus is quite catchy.
It never gets any better than the opening number, since the ironic ring of the album title finds complete confirmation in the music — the band is pulling the exact same strings as on their first record, and if they try harder at anything at all, it might only be letting all of their influences even more out in the open. Motown, surf-rock, the Beach Boys, early singer-songwriters, Marianne Faithful, whatever, if it's soft, sensitive, and old-fashioned, it all goes as long as it can be put to the sound of a guitar ring or jangle. And who needs «songwriting» if you can simply follow the recipe of dusting off all those loyal chord sequences and putting Tracyanne's lovely melancholia on top of the excellent hi-fi production?
Where it really gets annoying is when they let Kenny McKeeve sing Tracyanne's stuff. Among other things, she comes up with an acoustic ballad that Kenny interprets by taking a straightahead cue from Songs Of Leonard Cohen — extremely lovable if you do not have the faintest idea of who the hell is Leonard Cohen, but a rather inane rip-off if you do, not to mention that Kenny has a perfectly clean, bland, forgettable vocal tone: he might even be a better singer (technically) than Leonard ever was, but he has nothing on that guy's lazy, earthy, lovable little rasp that he'd use to such great advantage in his prime. Anyway, I think it is almost unethical for people to record a song like that without at least dedicating it to the imitated artist.
Another song, ʽLet Me Go Homeʼ, also sung by Kenny, is at least careful to namedrop its primary influences ("the room goes boom to the sound of temptations and more...", "supremes in our dreams...") as the bassline plays like a variation on ʽYou Can't Hurry Loveʼ and Tracyanne's backing vocals expressly borrow the vocal hook from ʽBaby Loveʼ. Despite that, this song at least feels more like a nostalgic tribute than a direct imitation, and it has a certain unique charm of its own, trying to cross the exuberant happiness of classic Motown with the frosty blue-eyed melancholia of the self-isolating hipster crew.
Of the rest, I particularly like those songs that have at least a faint whiff of a vocal hookline (instrumental hooklines are almost like a fairytale wish for this band): ʽKeep It Cleanʼ has a nice buildup and «suspended» resolution, and maybe ʽNumber One Sonʼ could eventually qualify for that group as well, after about half a dozen listens. But on the whole, analyzing or trying to be charmed by this record's melodic achievements seems useless — its thumbs up are completely due to the atmosphere. Tracyanne Campbell may be the ultimate hipster, yet she's got that odd femme-fatale (or should we say, fille-fatale?) mystique of Astrud Gilberto's caliber, and the band's music does its best to attenuate that feature. It will probably be a boring album if you try to focus on it. But if you don't, it's first-rate background muzak for a quiet evening that you'd like to share with a melancholic ghost figure.
Check "Underachievers Please Try Harder" (MP3) on Amazon