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Camera Obscura

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Friday, 23 February 2007
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Not too many years ago, there was a label called Sarah Records. It was an English label whose releases all chimed with a similar aesthetic that came to be known as twee-pop. Pristine, simple arrangements, songs of love and loss, and clean, mod-pop-inspired design. Groups like the Field Mice, Heavenly and the Orchids were inspired by post-punk and girl-groups. These were records that sounded sweet and innocent and yet were driven and absorbed by the D.I.Y culture, existing as a friendly offshoot of the angrier and spikier sounds emanating from the "mainstream" underground. Early records on Creation, as well as records by the Shop Assistants and the Flatmates epitomized the basis for the sound. This was button-down pop, accompanied by thrift store cardigans (a few badges pinned up close to the lapel, thanks), tapered jeans and scruffy hair. Throw a parka or anorak over the whole thing and call yourself a member of the underground.

Why the history lesson? Well, I'm just trying to put the Scottish group Camera Obscura in musical perspective. An easy comment to make is that Camera Obscura are mining the same territory as Belle & Sebastian, but let it be known that there is a history here that stretches back a bit further.

The group's sold-out show at the always beautiful Bimbo's 365 Club in North Beach may not have had too many people in attendance who were trying to play connect-the-dots with the band's sound and early indie pop of the 80s and 90s, but there's no doubt the group is aware of it. The most addictive-ly pleasant song on the group's Let's Get Out of This Country is "Lloyd, Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken"—a riposte of sorts to the Lloyd Cole song, "(Are You) Ready to Be Heartbroken?" No lover of smartly crafted indie pop should be without the warm, wry sounds found on Cole's 1984 record Rattlesnakes It's this song that gets the biggest response from the adoring crowd. That, and their segue into Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al" (the Graceland revival starts here). Standing strong with a half-dozen members on stage, the group charged through the material on …Country, with a few stops on the group's previous album, Underachievers Please Try Harder. Vocalist Tracyanne Campbell took most of the attention, providing a few quick-witted asides (to the audience member shouting, "Glasgow!" she responds, "Yes, that's where we're from") and generally sounding gracious and thankful to be in San Francisco. Her parts in the songs are generally revolved around an acoustic rhythm guitar, just filling in the blanks as the group dealt with adding in horns, electric piano, surf guitar and translating their Phil Spector-via-the Smiths sound in to a compelling show. On record, the group's success comes in their ability to craft parts of songs that sound like the best thing you've ever heard. The subtle fluctuations in voice, the little hint of sadness, the bells that chime in the distance, the aura of collegiate flings that never actually happened, winters spent flipping through Walker Percy novels and crushing on the librarian. That fictional literary indie world.

Live, it works. Now you certainly aren't going to be compelled to do the chicken walk while the band is playing, there probably isn't going to be a better show to stand behind your boyfriend/girlfriend and do that head-on-the-shoulder-and-hold-hands thing. The big stand-out for me was watching the percussionist do his thing in the background. Although his role seems to delegate to the peripheral percussion needs (tambourine, hitting drum stick on cymbal) and the horn parts, watching this guy you realize that he is holding this band together. This guy never misses a beat the entire show and is so completely involved with what he's doing that it's inspirational. He's got the rhythm and adds that touch of Motown spice that keeps things lively. Watch out for this guy, he rules.

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