January 21, 2004

Camera Obscura "Underachievers, Please Try Harder"

Falling in love with Camera Obscura was soooooo easy. Their debut album, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, was an utterly wonderful collection of shimmery sweet indie-pop. It impressed many a listener on first listen (myself included), and to say that I've been eagerly awaiting Underachievers Please Try Harder is an understatement. After all, there was some speculation as to the band's mere existence, as the silence surrounding the band grew deafening. Their old label website was not updated for a year, and there was simply no news. All signs pointed to a bleak reality that is all too common in indie-pop: that this really great band had only one shot at glory.

Luckily, their demise was not to be. They broke their deafening silence last year with the "Teenager." a wonderful little song that showed a major growth from their previous records that raised people's hopes--mine included. Underachievers Please Try Harder all of a sudden became a most-anticipated record, and when it appeared, it didn't disappoint, making many a best-of list. (Though it was released last year by Elefant, Merge picked it up for US release, and added the songs from the "Teenager" single and a video to their version.) Tracyanne Campbell's voice has grown stronger; on songs like "Suspended From Class" and "Number One Son," she's belting out lyrics harder than anything she's done before.

Thankfully, this growth does not come at the expense of their previous sound. Instead of growing beyond the styles laid down by their singles and Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, they have deftly refined it, and in so doing have surpassed their own standard. While the jingle-jangle acoustic pop may recall fellow Scots Belle & Sebastian (as well as 80s-era indiepop), for Underachievers they've tapped into a poppy, sunny Sixties vibe. In some instances, their inspiration is thinly veiled; "A Sisters Social Anxiety" recalls "Surfer Girl"/"Warmth of the Sun"-era Beach Boys. "Let Me Go Home," however, is an undeniable plundering of the Supremes' "Baby Love," but it's okay, because the song references/pays tribute to Motown.

I only have two complaints with Underachievers Please Try Harder, but these are aesthetic ones that don't hinder the overall record. First, Underachievers seems to lose steam towards the end. They throw all of their wonderful, fast-paced numbers at the beginning, but the album merely tuckers out by the ending. Not that it's a real problem, because if you're like me, it will take you time to get that far, as you'll be busy hitting 'repeat' after the first few songs. I'm also not terribly keen on the lead vocals of John Henderson; while he's a good singer, and sings on one of the album's strongest tracks, "Let Me Go Home," the Camera Obscura spotlight is clearly focused on Tracyanne.

Underachievers Please Try Harder is a great kickoff for 2004. Minor quibbles aside, this is one of the strongest indie-pop records I've heard in ages. Hopefully, they won't wait too long to follow this one up; the silence was too much to bear. The underachievers of Camera Obscura have tried harder, and they've done it quite well. A great record from a great band. What's better than that?

--Joseph Kyle

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