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Underachievers please try harder

Camera Obscura
Underachievers Please Try Harder
[Merge; 2004]
Rating: 8.0

Many of the most enchanting and popular indie pop records of the past few years have been filed under lap-pop/indietronica. By marrying The Field Mice's shimmering sonics with (where applicable) lovelorn lyrical impulses, those on the Morr and City Centre Offices rosters, Múm, The Postal Service, Freescha, Casino Versus Japan and Broadcast have been providing the warm hugs for the Darla set that used to be administered by post-C-86 jangle-pop. True, The Aislers Set, The Lucksmiths, and The Clientele have continued to proudly (and successfully) wave the flag for more classic melancholia, but in the first couple of years of this new millennium, too few other have bands managed to approach their charm.

However, in the past year or so, there's been a shift back toward the more traditional indie pop thanks to the slight return of Belle & Sebastian and records by Saturday Looks Good to Me, PAS/CAL, Pipas, The Happy Couple, Ballboy and, most of all, Camera Obscura. The Scottish band's second album, Underachievers Please Try Harder, captures a portion of the wispy bedsit magic that used to mark some of The Field Mice's best work and boosts it with the lush, "Hazey Jane II"-like chamber-pop of Belle & Sebastian's first flourishes of glory. (Admittedly, as a co-ed, Glaswegian sextet, B&S comparisons would have come fast and easy even if Camera Obscura hadn't once featured Richard Colburn on drums or got their foot in the door of public consciousness with a single produced by Stuart Murdoch, "Eighties Fan".)

Underachievers was released in the UK last year on Spain's Elefant Records, and now Merge spreads the word in the U.S. and adds B-sides "I Don't Want to See You" and "Footloose and Fancyfree". Ignoring the infantilism of some of the more twee indie pop, Camera Obscura scold immature relationship decisions on "Teenager", offer tender advice on "A Sister's Social Agony", and go on the make on "Suspended from Class". Their honest, wide, and adult approach to heartbreak, romantic liaisons, and escapism is extended to the subtle range of influence-- most of which is shown off on the tracks sung by John Henderson. "Before You Cry" is a graceful nod to Nashville, "Your Picture" is a dead ringer for Leonard Cohen, and Motown stomper "Let Me Go Home" is the best of their soul boy all-nighters.

Camera Obscura keep their cards closer to their indie pop chest when Tracyanne Campbell is alone on the mic, and, despite the success of the aforementioned tracks, are all the better for it. "A Sister's Social Agony" apes the gentle harmonies and chimes of sibling-led vocal groups Four Freshman and The Beach Boys-- an appropriate and sly arrangement for the subject matter. Best of all are the gentle, luminous "Suspended from Class" and "Books Written for Girls", each of which feature self-deprecating lyrics, tender arrangements, and a lifeline for heart-on-sleeve acoustic pop.


-Scott Plagenhoef, January 20, 2004

Camera Obscura [Pitchfork]
foto: Archivo Elefant










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