Camera Obscura

Under Achievers Please Try Harder

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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