It's hard not to lump Underachievers Please Try Harder
into a category so easily described as followers of Belle & Sebastian. In fact, Camera Obscura's previous release was produced by Stuart Murdoch of B&S fame, and they also originate from Glasgow, Scotland. Camera Obscura, however, is able to pull away from the ever-growing pack of lush pop followers with the use of a few strong elements.
The first element, which becomes apparent on "A Sister's Social Agony", is the ability to harken back to an era where girls wore poodle skirts and boys donned their letter sweaters proudly. It's a song devoted to the struggle of watching a sibling go through love's trials. Filled with "ooooh"s and "wahooo"s, it sounds like a song from the 1956 Fall Gala. But it's the lyrics that hold this tune in modern times. "Play indie rock / If that's what you want / Quote Mike Leigh films / It will turn them all on..." "Teenager" is another nod to a different era. Its vocal track, which closely resembles one of the strangest instruments of our time, the Theremin, gives the song a Beach Boys tone. Soft, rolling drums push home the resemblance. Brian Wilson would be proud.
This ability to break from standards helps Camera Obscura to stand out. Picking up where the now defunct Elephant Six Recording Co. left off, they are able to pull in harmonies and sounds that are closely linked to a different time.
The second element that differentiates Camera Obscura's sound is the vocals. Tracyanne Campbell and Carey Lander have a vocal range so crisp and pure that it'll make you fall for them sight-unseen. If I hadn't read that they were from Glasgow, I'd swear that they came from the same Swedish singing school as Karolina Komstedt of Club 8. Pop songs this light and dreamy have the tendency to float off if not held onto. In this case, they are grounded by John Henderson's deep soothing vocals on tracks like "Let Me Go Home" and "Your Picture".
The final element that allows the group to capture a sound of their own is the guitar work, which ranges from country to something as close to a blues riff as a pop band can muster. For the most part, it is hidden in the background of each song, but periodically peeks its head out and reminds us that Camera Obscura have plenty up their sleeves. It's all about versatility.
Upon first listen, it seems easy to say that you've heard this before -- but if you take the time to let it sink in, it is obviously not the same band or sound as Belle and Sebastian. Don't be surprised, however, if you see the two acts sharing a bill.