If It's Not Scottish, It's Crap!

Camera Obscura and that other Scot band

Famous Scots actor Sean Connery once damned his cinematic alter ego James Bond. "I'd like to kill him," said Commander Connery, as his work as an actor seemed forever (in the 1960s and '70s, anyway) to be in the shadow of that iconic character. The more recent export Camera Obscura is likewise plagued by constant comparisons to fellow Scot neo-icons Belle & Sebastian. Coed membership, 1960s musical influences, a pointedly wry sense of humor, insidiously melodic, introspective songs, and a winsome approach to singing (some might call "twee") — one may easily apply these criteria to both outfits, and to put the icing on the gravy, B&S drummer Rich Colbern played in an early edition of Camera Obscura. Well, there you have it! They're the same band! [Oy.]

Ah, but things are different now. Camera Obscura's new album, Let's Get Out of This Country, ought to banish such silly notions once 'n' for all. When asked for a candid statement to the press regarding that pesky other-band subject, Camera Obscura's very Scottish bassist Gavin Dunbar announced somewhat cheekily, "Over! We've shed the Belle & Sebastian comparisons with this new album!" I've got to admit he's correct — several nonstop listens to Let's Get ... confirm the facts. Where B&S are reserved and meticulous (not a knock, btw), Let's Get ... has a disarmingly rough-hewn (though not sloppy) and emotionally direct ambiance in the manner of many classic soul/R&B hits from the 1960s and early '70s. Not that Camera Obscura is embracing any retro aesthetic — though the classic Motown sound is an influence, "along with the records of Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood, the Beatles," says Dunbar — but there is that similar dynamic dichotomy, that spirit borne of the refined joyfully colliding/colluding with the immediate.

How does a band with members spanning ages 22 through 34 absorb considerable inspiration from Back Then, anyway? "A common love of the same records, Internet radio, and [legendary U.K. DJ] John Peel, who'd play just about anything," Dunbar explains. Further (unlike in the U.S.A.), U.K. music fans don't totally disavow styles when they pass from the charts — witness their unflagging affection for rockabilly and Northern soul (i.e., obscure American '60s/'70s soul and funk).

Camera Obscura shift focus.
Blair Young
Camera Obscura shift focus.

Do you ever get that weird knot in your stomach when you learn one of your favorite bands took six or more months to record an album, and then the long-awaited result sucks Midas mufflers? Camera Obscura had a two-week window in which to record Let's Get ... and used such a circumstance to great advantage. Going on the recommendation of Stephen Pastel (of Scots cult band the Pastels), the members worked with Swedish producer Jari Haapalainen for their third album. As he was only going to be available for a short time, "We practiced and practiced for weeks before going to Sweden," Dunbar says. "We wanted to be as tight and rehearsed as possible for those two weeks." Consequently, "The songs are pretty much live takes, with a minimum of overdubs and tweaking afterwards, and that focus made us tighter, sharper as a band."

The proof's in the pudding — with its girl-group harmonies and the lilting and bittersweet vocal swagger of Tracyanne Campbell, "If Looks Could Kill" surges with booming wall-of-sound urgency, baby-lovin' Motown melody, garage-band panache, and the between-station crackle of a thousand tiny AM radios. Camera Obscura tips its collective hat to that cynical, erudite designer of despondency Lloyd Cole with the soaring mini-epic opener "Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken" ("'cause I can't see further/ than my own nose at this moment"), then to '70s singer-songwriter "Dory Previn" (whose marriage to pianist/conductor Andre Previn was girl-interrupted by Mia Farrow ... what goes 'round comes around, huh, Mia?), best summarized as lysergic honky-tonk country. Kids, I don't think we're in that part of Scotland anymore.

 
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