Sunlit Dandelion Afternoons: Camera Obscura’s Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi

Camera Obscura
Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi
4AD / Merge

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Glasgow, what a cool musical hotbed.

So fertile are the cultivating grounds of Scotland’s second largest city that there’s a separate Wiki page dedicated solely to the long and growing list of (mostly) brilliant Glaswegians that have often dominated our collective record collection. Leaving aside the likes of Texas or 1990s, consider Orange Juice, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Mogwai, Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, Bert Jansch, Primal Scream, The Delgados, Franz Ferdinand, The Vaselines, Jack Bruce, The Blue Nile, James King & The Lone Wolves, The Marmalade, Aztec Camera, and this is to but skim a list that in itself is a bit of a skim. While it would be near impossible to ascribe an overarching regional aesthetic to such a vivid, varied roster, certain lineages suggest themselves. Toss Mogwai and Arab Strap into a blender and pour the results into the early 70’s and it’s conceivable you’d hear something not too unlike Gun or Beggars Opera. Pour it forward into 2010, add ear-splitting volume, and you’re not a long ways from The Twilight Sad. And tell me a young Bobby Gillespie didn’t carry the incipient dance promise of New Gold Dream into the widescreen sonic panoramas of “Screamadelica.” But perhaps no procreant line has produced more offspring – and, as a result, fanatical adherents worldwide – as the one that stretches from Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and Felt through The Pastels, The Blue Nile, Lloyd Cole, Trashcan Sinatras until finally finding renewed – if subdued – regeneration in Belle & Sebastian and, more brilliantly, their sublime cohorts Camera Obscura.

Founded the same year as B&S (1996) around the core nucleus of Tracyanne Campbell and Gavin Dunbar, a couple of singles emerged in 1998 (“Park And Ride” and “Your Sound”) amidst the usual shaking out of a young band’s personnel before debut album Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi appears in 2001. Helmed by B&S’s Stuart Murdoch – thereby linking the two bands forevermore – Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi makes its intentions clear straight out of the gate in its first three tracks. “Happy New Year” comes trotting in on a soft-shoe cowboy vibe, sporting a clean – pristine, even – sound combined with immaculate popcraft that will become their trademark, especially as it combines with feyly heartbroken lyrical tropes that will also serve to define them. Literate bedsit pop wasn’t born with them but it’s arguably true that in Camera Obscura it had found its most elegant practitioners. “Eighties Fan,” with its “Just Like Honey” intro slyly pre-echoing the chorus’s lyric (‘Tell me, do you wash your hair in honey dew’), illustrates an easy, consummate intelligence at work which is hardly surprising given what has already been learned on the opening track. Nor should either the arrival of (actual) strings nor the fact they’re arranged by the band themselves come as any shock. When it comes to pop classicism, Camera Obscura ain’t foolin’ around.

With “Houseboat” we’re treated (or subjected, depending on one’s view) to another CO attribute, that of Campbell and Dunbar engaging in conversational  vocals, a gambit that comes with the risk of sounding rather romantically twee (oops, there’s that word, we all knew it was coming, didn’t we?) and the two don’t entirely escape that wet noodle lash here, even as lyrically the song rather excels. Twee, at heart, is a matter of tone (a standard set by Bristol label Sarah Records that Gavin and Tracyanne – as well as B&S – are clearly indebted to), a tone it’s difficult not to set when trading lines inside the cossetting framework of an arrangement so sunny that even the downcast seems downright perky. This is the challenge with Camera Obscura that one must work around if the bountiful rewards actually on offer are to be discovered. We can dance around the word ‘twee’ until the cows come home dressed in frilly bloomers with daisies in their tails but to do so overshadows and in fact flagrantly neglects the unadulterated songcraft that’s always been at the heart of this band’s material. Oh, and it’s also a fact that in Tracyanne Campbell you’ve got one of the most lucently mellifluous voices in pop. The girl does dulcet with authority.

So step right this way for the swinging (lightly, of course) cheek of the Nashville-kissed “Anti-Western,” abetted again by strings arranged beyond the band’s years at that point and the parping punctuation of a discreetly used trumpet. Throughout Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi it’s the polished arrangements that carry the day. Yeah, you don’t come here for dirty – it’s a fair bet Camera Obscura have never featured on the Jon Spencer tour bus – but if it’s immaculate layering you’re looking for that pays increased dividends with repeated listenings – check out the hauntological vibes at the tailend of “I Don’t Do Crowds,” for instance – you could do far worse than Camera Obscura’s debut album. As if to solidify the band’s remit, the record ends with a gentler-than-normal track called “Arrangements of Shape and Space,” an instrumental that carries you (the splashy explosion of a middle bridge notwithstanding) to a sunlit dandelion afternoon, an insect buzz hanging in the air at fadeout.

Take it or leave it (I’d strongly suggest the former), Camera Obscura’s first album firmly, quite winningly, establishes them as more-than-worthy inheritors of the Glaswegian mantle they so unabashedly inhabit. Don’t have it? Get it, and summer Sunday mornings, or, for that matter, rainy romantic autumn ones, will never be same.