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Camera Obscura - Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi

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Artist: Camera Obscura

Album: Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi

Label: Merge

Review date: Jan. 10, 2005

Now that last year’s Underachievers Please Try Harder raised their profile in the United States, Merge has reissued Camera Obscura’s debut album, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, previously available only as an import on the AndMoreSound label. Since it was recorded just a year before Underachievers Please Try Harder, and with the same line-up, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi could just as easily be that album’s follow-up.

Camera Obscura’s albums are genre exercises, primarily in literate, wistful indie pop. Within those parameters, there are few rough edges to smooth out or many experiments to perform, since, quite frankly, this is not a style that lends itself to trying new things. Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi has charm to spare, though, and, like Underachievers Please Try Harder, melodies that rival the best work of fellow Glaswegians Belle and Sebastian.

The Belle and Sebastian similarities are many, from Camera Obscura’s hometown, to the mod pictorials used in their cover art, to the careful boy-girl harmonies. Such comparisons are well-deserved – the two bands do in fact sound quite a bit alike, and Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian produced “Eighties Fan,” one of Camera Obscura’s singles from this album. But since Belle and Sebastian have been a musical fixture for a number of years, Camera Obscura generally get the short end of the contrast, described either as followers or, more generously, just as the “next” Belle and Sebastian. Which is a shame, really, because even though the styles of the two bands are similar Camera Obscura’s strength comes from Belle and Sebastian’s biggest weakness. They’re better as a rock band.

None of the songs on Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi are especially complex – the strings on “Eighties Fan” are the only chamber rock moment – but are, rather, straightforward and instantaneous. “New Western” mentions Lee and Nancy, I take it as references to Hazelwood and Sinatra, but the more immediate influences sound like British Invasion and girl group bands. Instead of relying on elaborate production work and delicate changes of tempo and melody, Camera Obscura are more likely to lean on a few memorable progressions. “Shine Like a New Pin,” the album’s best song, is a guitar and organ composition that more closely resembles a jam session than a chamber performance. While lyrics don’t exactly take a back seat to the instrumental work, Camera Obscura often cuts verses short for the sake of a bridge or chorus. Lead singer Tracyanne Campbell’s voice has a nice range, often starting at a soft sing-speak and stretching without obvious effort for more complex melodies, occasionally harmonizing with bandmate John Henderson. Maybe we can all just think of them as another band from Glasgow? That sounds fair to me.

By Tom Zimpleman

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Underachievers Please Try Harder

Let's Get Out of this Country

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