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Camera Obscura 

Under Achievers Please Try Harder

Wednesday, Feb 4 2004
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Listeners shouldn't be faulted for thinking that Under Achievers Please Try Harder, the second LP from Glasgow's Camera Obscura, is some kind of Belle & Sebastian side project. Stuart Murdoch's presence hangs over the proceedings like a truant officer watching a juvenile delinquent on a hot spring day. (Murdoch took the cover photos -- guaranteed to be the twee-est of the year, with threadbare teddy bear, nerdy glasses, and hand-knit caps -- and even dated lead singer Tracyanne Campbell for a time.) Each song feels drawn from the same wellspring as B&S's 1996 classic If You're Feeling Sinister, from the gently chiming guitars and wistful string parts to the pretty harmonies and teetering horn accents. But while there are legions of B&S copycats, no one's quite captured the band's vibe -- that mixture of the tart and the sweet -- as completely as Camera Obscura.

Most of this success comes from Campbell, whose bruised vocal swoon induces much hanky soiling. (In something of an inversion of the B&S formula, the group's male singer, John Henderson, is far less expressive, resigned to using a Leonard Cohen-esque croak.) But Campbell is doubly smart: She knows no one wants to hear a gal cry in her beer for 45 minutes, so she avoids the solipsism of a pity party by looking at love from all sides -- be it lost, found, or deeply embittered. On "Suspended From Class," she makes a pass at a boy, suggesting hopefully, "I've a feeling that pigs might fly, pigs might fly." Then, on "Teenager," she slags a rival, singing, "For your birthday she sent you a card/ She didn't sign her name, she gave an autograph." Later, on "Books Written for Girls," she casts her gaze inward, suggesting, "You probably thought I had more upstairs." Self-hatred, jealousy, envy, and amorousness all fall gracefully from Campbell's lips. By the end of the CD, she sounds like the bear on the cover looks -- a bit worn and tired, but willing to strap on her glasses and head back into the fight.

With B&S's last LP, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Stuart Murdoch seemed quite happy -- and the album suffered for it. With Under Achievers, Camera Obscura does the suffering, so you don't have to.

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Dan Strachota

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