The first thing every band needs is a good name. Camera Obscura is not one of these. I just really dislike the idea of naming something after a technique. And, please, not an obscure (wink wink) photographic technique because then it just sounds really pretentious. Granted, you will dominate the photography racket, and, believe me, those people really need music to play as they lurk in those scary darkrooms. Still, nothing in those two words appeals to me once they are placed together. Luckily the band has actually created something under the guise of the name, and that something is “Underachievers Please Try Harder.”
Gripe number two is the terrible title of the album. I know there’s sarcasm in there, but the humor really does not translate very well. Subtlety has taken comedy hostage in the independent film industry, and we should all be very thankful for that. The days of rubber face have officially ended, and hopefully those of reserved hilarity will continue to dominate. The independent music industry, though, has always relied on deadpan humor in the public forum in order to maintain the cool facade that the term “indie rock” implies. Just look at how unintentionally hilarious guys like Conor Oberst or those idiots from Fountains of Wayne appear with their respective demeanors. By the way, I am growing extremely tired of critics applauding the newfound success of the latter by referring to their back catalogue, which, frankly, has always and will always continue to sound like cloying mediocrity.
A phrase like “underachievers please try harder” is so lazy and strikingly unfunny that I have feel dinner with the band would probably pack as much action and passion as a tired episode of MTV’s Daria. Oh I get it now, everyone’s being passively ironic. Take it from me, it feels good to rant obsessively every once in awhile.
I’ll get to the music in a bit, but the cover of the album helps to elevate your mood once you get past the name and title. The girl on the left, who may or may not be singer Tracyanne Campbell, looks intelligently yet sternly dispassionate with a pair of anomalous eyeglasses, but the fact that she’s holding an old pink teddy pair endears her to you. Similarly, the girl on the right, who may or may not be singer Michelle Maskovich, holds a detached look on her face, but her soft white cap makes her look adorable until you see how it clashes with her black leather glove that grips a cold silver camera (a nice touch). Ooh, she has a dark side as well. Now I positively have to listen to the CD.
Camera Obscura are indie rockers from Scotland, like Belle and Sebastian. Incredibly, at times they actually sound much like that band in their early years, which actually is quite refreshing. In recent years the whole annoying “indie rock” (how I loathe that term) thing has gotten farther and farther away from the steady and fierce guitar of the Pixies and closer to both Stereolab’s blip-y soundscapes and Ladytron’s magnetic dance-pop. In between were the spare and austere years of Belle and Sebastian which are revisited here, and what a breath of fresh air it is. “A Sister’s Social Agony” glides along gently and smartly, and “Teenager” rails against careless decisions in those informative years.
With seven odd band members playing deft, simple arrangements, nothing quite offends on this album. And then again, nothing quite captivates. Nevertheless, it’s a fun trip down memory lane