Agony Shorthand

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

For the most part I've got little truck with the branch of pop music the shrinking violet-types like to call "twee". Not because I'm a kick-ass rock and roller (though I am), but because so often the stuff (I'm thinking The Clientele, Trembling Blue Stars and even the much-heralded 1980s/90s Scottish bands) is deliberately cloying and oh-so-dandy to a fault. The aforementioned bands often sound like they're trying to all write the perfect tearjerking moonlit-beach love song, and come off about as radical and evolutionary as Elvis singing "Blue Hawaii" to Sandra Dee in glorious technicolor. But every now & again I'll hear a "twee" act that moves the needle in a big way. One day around 1996 or so my girlfriend played me her newly-purchased CD of BELLE AND SEBASTIAN's "If You're Feeling Sinister", and it just instantly clicked -- the band sounded like a muted, only half-serious version of what a Syd Barrett/"Forever Changes"-era LOVE hybrid might sound like, with first-rate hooks and lush orchestral arrangements that evinced an inborn songcraft and a filmmaker-like ability to shift emotions that few mortals can master. I remain a cheering B&S partisan to this day. So it was once more a few weeks ago when an MP3 blogger pushed me past my twee roadblock, and forced me to download a couple of tracks from Glasglow, Scotland's CAMERA OBSCURA. Hey hey! Hook, line and sinker -- this band, though flawed, sure are terrific when they want to be. "Underachievers Please Try Harder", which I rushed out to buy, is their second CD, and the first imported over by an American label.

Unfortunately for them, they've been saddled with a label of "Belle and Sebastian with a female singer", which is sorta fair and sorta unfair. Fair in the sense that Camera Obscura are already playing at that level of talent on fantastic tracks like "Keep It Clean", "Teenager" and "Books Written For Girls", full of clever lyrical puzzles on love and the human condition, and because their singer Tracy-Anne Campbell delivers her lines with a shy and even kinda sexy set of nuances, winks and smiles. What could easily come off as wimpy and foppish instead delivers the sensitive strum-pop goods like nothing since those first few tracks on MAZZY STAR's great 1989 debut. I'm struck by how the band incorporates acres-full of interesting sounds from instruments like maracas and distant horns, while still keeping everything so tranquil and restrained. The B&S comparison's unfair in the sense that Camera Obscura also add in a retro-1950s teen angel sensibility on a couple of tracks that wouldn't have been out of place in a Doris Day film or something (and no, that's not exactly high praise, but it does certainly mark them as distinct), and when they let the guy sing things just sort of fall apart and the songs sort of lazily drift into the ether, the kind where you're looking at the CD case to check how much longer the song's supposed to go on. For every one of those, though, there's at least 3-4 real, real good ones, and on a 13-track CD that's some pretty strong slugging. I think it's easily good enough for me to seek them out for a live rendezvous should they jet over from Scotland. I know that I'll be safe and sound in that crowd, huddled around young girls in granny glasses and young men who deliberately button the top button of their shirts, none of whom will spill beer on me and who'll gently apologize when they step on my boots. Sure, their patron saint, Tim Hinely of DAGGER magazine, will be there with his shirt off, stagediving and getting in fistfights, but hey, this is his scene and I'll just be a visitor standing to the side. Shuffle past your own biases and see if you can download a couple of these great Camera Obscura tracks; you may be putting your twee gameface on a lot quicker than you'd expected.