'People get shattered in many ways'
So sings Tracyanne Campbell in 'Books Written For Girls', the bleakest and most beguiling track on this album. The song has the feeling of the first night alone in a dark, cold apartment knowing The Girl has gone and probably won't be coming back - but it isn't a song about being shattered. Its a song about realising that, perhaps, this was the only way and that you might just be better off with out Her.
You might. Hopefully. Perhaps
The uncertainty exhibited here is central to Camera Obscura's appeal. It's there in the brittle yet beautiful vocals; in the music that swirls around you, gentle yet insistent, slipping away as you give yourself up to it. It is even there on the album cover - the band's two female members gaze out, dressed in old-fashioned clothes, one clutching a cine-camera, the other a teddy bear. They have an air of stylisation and self-aware irony and yet you suspect that, underneath, they're rather fond of their warm hats and soft toys. They're pretending, and they know we know - but in the act there's a great deal of truth.
Not that there's anything pretentious about this album. Far from it, every track is deeply felt and honestly delivered, sometimes heart-breaking but never histrionic. As the first song, 'Suspended From Class' opens with its warm, almost lilting, guitar and harmonies you know you're in for something of a treat. Lyrically, there's a double identity - the childlike notion of 'I should be suspended from class' is followed by the wry, adult 'I don't know my elbow from my arse', leaving the listener simultaneously touched and amused.
A similar tension exists between conflicting various aspects of the narrator’s personality, for example between earthiness ('We could go out dancing, but in truth it is the last thing that I have on my mind') and timidity ('Just say if I'm way out of line/I won't need telling twice').
A fine opening, indiepop at its best - soft yet sharp, dirty-minded yet endearingly innocent, and a promising indication of what is to come.
'Keep It Clean' follows, and there's a jangle to the guitar and a tambourine accompaniment, yet ultimately its a song about rejection - 'Does it make you happy to ignore me on streets?' and of wanting to take someone back yet knowing it would be desperately bad for you.... but still.... maybe..... this time...
The musical style evolves from song to song: 'A Sister's Social Agony' evokes 1950s love songs and allows itself to get sentimental. At the same time, its a plea for sincerity - 'Don't apologise/...To get misty eyed, you know that its fine'. 'Teenager' sounds like it could come from a Western movie, although the lyrics are far too astute for such a posturing genre. The bouncy rythms and strings of 'Number One Son' are followed by the soul-influenced 'Let Me Go Home' and that distinctly lo-fi 'Books Written For Girls'.
Despite the stylistic variations, the album holds together. In the past, Camera Obscura have been (rather unfairly) accused of producing capable pastiches of other bands, but of lacking any distinctive style of their own. This album should put an end to all that. Musical comparisons can be made - the press release talks about The Lovin Spoonful and Yo La Tengo, I thought of Lee Hazlewood, The Ronnettes, The Shangri-Las and the one they must get sick of hearing with a certain other prominent Scottish indie band - but the threads are all pulled together into something unique and completely their own.
So... 'Let Me Go Home' sounds rather like 'The Boy With The Arab Strap' - it doesn't matter. When they sound this good they can sound like whoever they want to.
Except, perhaps, Leonard Cohen. The only song that doesn't feel right is 'Your Picture'. It is too similar to 'Famous Blue Raincoat' and though the lyrics are of a suitable calibre for a Cohen pastiche, this isn't where the band excel.
But why dwell on such things? The Camera Obscura sound delights on every other track and the lyrics, full of deliberate double-meanings and thinly-covered insecurities make you smile, wince and occasionally get a little moist around the tear ducts - often all at the same time. We are taken on the Underachievers journey through failed fumblings, pleas for separation, vows to toughen up and a hundred attempts at self-deception that anyone with a trace of self-awareness will see mirrored in their own life. Alongside the sordid reality of the lyrics, the music swoons.
Throughout, there's that uncertainty: When Tracyanne sings 'I think separation is okay' ('Books Written For Girls') you know she's having a hard time convincing even herself. When, at the end of 'Before You Cry' she sings 'You feel a little sad tonight, but you'll be allright' it sounds partly like words of genuine comfort and partly like a glib assertion offered before the door is closed, and the feelings of a lover are put from your mind.
Despite all of this, at no time is listening to 'Underachievers....' a depressing experience. The songs are so sharply-observed that the listener can't help but empathise, but they never sink into outright misery. Every situation has a positive side, after the tower has fallen, the fool can gaze at the star of hope. And so, the two closing tracks of the album offer the stars ('Knee Deep at the NPL' where promises of safety and warmth are offset by the narrator's 'How can I expect you to understand who I am?') - and dreams of the the moon, in 'Lunar Sea' ('At the rainbow's end, find a perfect friend, say you're sorry'). They know, we know, that 'Lunar Sea' is a dream - at one point they admit 'I blew it' - but it still feels as if there's a chance. Its an offer to do anything for a lover. Is it accepted? We don't know, but we do know that the moon is usually followed by the sun.
And there it is again - hope in the hopelessness, joy in the sorrow, and the reverse, of course. And you're left with a feeling of something completely real, of a soul laid out before you -one just a little like your own. Its a love story without the post orgasmic glow - more of a snog and a fumble at the bus stop with the girl (definitely a girl, no matter what your usual preference) who is just that little bit too good-looking to be true, and a morning after, raw and hopeful, terrified that she won't call, terrified that she will.
People get shattered in many ways, they tell you. And then they offer you a means of mending yourself. But it now, learn to love it, and it will keep you warm through those winter months.
I haven't enjoyed an album this much all year.
Here's an interview we did with Gavin of Camera Obscura in June