The Eyes Have It
There’s a certain aesthetic inherent in a particular strain of Scottish pop music — a vaguely nostalgic aura that conjures rain-streaked windows and gray days, buttoned-up cardigan sweaters to ward off chills, a whistling pot of tea and prim ladyfingers. This lineage runs deep, from the Postcard-label pop warbles of Edwyn Collins’ Orange Juice, through Aztec Camera’s lounge-act crooning and, of course, the charming indie-twee of unrequited-love demigod Belle and Sebastian.
The latter group is especially familiar to the Glaswegian sextet Camera Obscura: The two acts have been compared constantly since singer Tracyanne Campbell, percussionist John Henderson and bassist Gavin Dunbar originally formed Camera Obscura in 1996. But true to the humor displayed on his band’s tour blog (found at cameraobscura-.blogspot.com; don’t forget the dash), Dunbar simply laughs when asked if his band is tired of answering questions about its fellow countrymen.
“It is kind of strange,” he says, as the group heads to Florida after a gig in Atlanta. (His thick Scottish brogue makes notoriously hard-to-understand Echo & the Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch sound like a proper schoolmarm.) “To an extent, we can kind of understand. I guess there have been similar influences, and both bands have lost members and stuff. [But] we could never quite understand why it was constantly referred to. It has noticeably declined in the last year with this new record, which is good. I think it was a little bit unfair before.”
Which begs the question: Unfair to whom? Certainly to Belle and Sebastian, whose last few albums bear little resemblance to the bookish fragility and feathery acoustics of its earlier work. But the comparisons have arguably hurt Camera Obscura more — especially because anyone dismissing the group as a mere Scot-pop knock-off (2003’s Underachievers, Please Try Harder was a dainty affair featuring whispery vocals and wintry sonics) missed out on the sonic leaps audible on last year’s Let’s Get Out of This Country.
The departure of co-founder John Henderson added a little pressure to Country‘s genesis. (“We all had to step up our game a bit to make sure that the next record sounded better, didn’t sound like there was something missing,” Dunbar says.) But the members of Camera Obscura wisely relieved more stress by decamping to Stockholm, Sweden, for a few weeks to record the album without distractions.
“Before, the band just recorded in Glasgow,” Dunbar says. “We did recording on weekends whenever we were off work, so to just do it in one fortnight session was a big change. It took us away from our own everyday existence. We wouldn’t go home after the session and go back to our own houses. It made us more focused because we were just there purely to make this record. It really helped the record sound more focused. It’s such a great city to have done it. There’s so much atmosphere there. That comes through as well.”
Indeed, Country feels more sophisticated than Camera Obscura’s previous work —unsurprisingly, it resembles the crystalline music created by Swedes such as the Cardigans and the Concretes.
The difference is obvious from the first track, “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken.” (Geek alert: The song is a response to Scottish troubadour Lloyd Cole’s “Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?”) A brisk, organ-driven bounce reminiscent of the Smiths, “Lloyd” features Campbell’s most strident performance to date; she belts lyrics such as I’ve got my life of complication here to sort out/I’ll take myself to an East Coast city and walk about with sassy vigor and newfound confidence. The rest of the album is woven with equally decadent, classy flourishes: Spector-ian Wall of Sound reverb (“Come Back Margaret”); brittle, French-pop waltz-time (“The False Contender”); a swoop of dramatic strings (the title track); cha-cha beats and horns (“If Looks Could Kill”). Country is the equivalent of winter sunshine — a mood lifter even though its bright light is chilly.
These sonic shifts come courtesy of producer Jari Haapalainen, veteran of similarly rich-sounding albums by the Concretes and Ed Harcourt. Although he wasn’t the group’s first choice — that honor goes to moody troubadour and ex-Longpig Richard Hawley, who was too busy — Haapalainen came recommended highly by none other than Stephen McRobbie from legendary Scottish indie heroes the Pastels.
“We got in touch with him, and at first he was like, ‘Yeah, I know who you are. Hmm, I’ll think about it,'” Dunbar says. “Then he got back to us and said he was quite keen to give it a go. It was really exciting because we could tell he had his own vision for how he thought the record should sound. It’s great having someone else in the picture, rather than just us.”
“We needed to stretch ourselves a bit more because we hadn’t really had anyone pushing us before. Getting a producer really helped us get into gear and push ourselves as a band. You can really see the difference. It’s more full-on sounding, louder — a bit more energy to it, maybe.”
The group’s live gigs reflect this new direction. Dunbar says that Camera Obscura used to feel more at home playing in quieter spaces, something that’s difficult now because American crowds, he says, are “a bit bigger here and a bit more vocal” than those in other places. Then again, this enthusiasm bodes well — especially given that the members of the band have quit their jobs (record store clerk, drug-crisis-center staffer, arts distribution company worker, to name a few) to do the band full time, thereby erasing what Dunbar says was the biggest challenge the members of Camera Obscura faced: juggling their dual careers.
Are the jobs still there, just in case?
He laughs. “Some of them are. Some of them aren’t. We’ll just have to see what happens. Hopefully, we won’t need them.”