Camera Obscura - Biography
A piece on Camera Obscura written before 2006 might consist of little more than a paragraph. Before that year, when they released their third album, Let's Get out of this Country, the band was largely dismissed as just another Scottish group that sounded just a bit too similar to Belle & Sebastian. It was a comparison that was almost unanimously agreed upon, and for good reason. In addition to the mopey, wistful pop employed by both groups, there were other similarities: at one time, they both had seven members, their album covers shared a similar aesthetic, Camera Obscura were helped by the drummer of Belle & Sebastian early on, and the singer/guitarist of the latter band produced the former's first album. Of course the songs would end up being seen in the same light as Belle & Sebastian. However, very few critics denied the talent of singer and chief songwriter, Tracyanne Campbell, whose warm delivery and heartbroken lyrics kept the group afloat as a relevant indie band. Then, with the release of Let's Get out of this Country, the comparisons to other groups began to fade. The album was a critical sensation and a triumph. Although they have not been canonized the way Belle & Sebastian have, nor have they achieved great success commercially, Camera Obscura can rest assured that on their next album they will finally be compared only to themselves.
Camera Obscura began as a three-piece indie pop band formed by Campbell, Gavin Dunbar, and John Henderson. They formed in the mid ‘90s, when Dunbar owned a record store that Campbell and Henderson frequented as college students. He eventually called them, interested in the idea of playing music with them as a bassist. Henderson and Campbell accepted and the trio started rehearsing in the shed of Dunbar's father, naming themselves Camera Obscura in 1996. After several musicians auditioned for the roles of guitar, piano and miscellaneous instruments, singer and guitarist David Skirving tried out and became a prominent member of the now four-piece band.
After gigging locally for about two years with other local acts such as Snow Patrol, Camera Obscura were picked up by the tiny Glasgow label, Andmoresound. The label put out two singles by the group, “Park and Ride” and “Your Sound,” in 1998. A mini-album, Rare UK Bird, was released that year on a Japanese label, Quattro. The only problem facing the band now was their lack of a permanent drummer (they had used session drummers up to that point, including Richard Colburn of Belle & Sebastian). Soon enough the gap was filled when Lee Thomson signed on as an official member. All was well until one year later when it was time to find yet another new member as Skirving departed to form his own band.
Almost immediately after his departure, Skirving founded the band California Snow Story and eventually issued the five-song EP, One Good Summer, in 2002. Following lackluster sales, Skirving went on hiatus before returning in 2007 with the first California Snow Story full-length, Close to the Ocean. In an interview with Eardrums to promote the album, Skirving mentioned that although he still speaks with Camera Obscura occasionally, he attributes their success to simply having a great name.
Camera Obscura replaced Skirving with Kenny McKeeve, a multi-talented musician who could play the mandolin and harmonica — on top of his capabilities as a singer and guitar-player. Shortly after McKeeve's arrival, Lindsay Boyd joined the fold as well, stretching the band's lineup to a total of six members. In 2001, the band released a new single, the soft-rocking, string-soaked “Eighties Fan.” It was finally time for Camera Obscura's first full-length LP. As if the band didn't evoke Belle & Sebastian enough already, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi was produced by Stuart Murdoch. Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi was released in 2001 on Andmoremusic to fine reviews. The one obvious criticism, though, was everywhere; the band had no real identity to call their own.
Being a favorite new group of John Peel could do wonders for a band and Camera Obscura were no exception, leading to a Peel session in the summer of 2002. Some time before the session occurred, Boyd quit and was replaced by keyboardist Carey Lander. The lineup extended to seven once trumpeter and percussionist Nigel Baille joined the ranks. By their second album, Underachievers Please Try Harder (2003-Elefant), the band had drummed up a significant, loyal following. The US release of the album (which appeared one year later on Merge) came with two bonus tracks, “I Don't Want to See You” and “Footloose and Fancy Free.”
Although the new release was a step forward for the band, they still sounded like other artists on many tracks. “Your Picture” can be easily mistaken for Leonard Cohen's “Suzanne.” “Let Me Go Home” is a bouncy number that recalls the catchy pop of Motown, particularly in its “Baby Love” backing vocals. The song might be viewed as a shameless rip-off but it's actually a perfect example of the way Camera Obscura wear their influences proudly (the lyrics name-drop both The Supremes and The Temptations). Of course, they still sounded like Belle & Sebastian too. Reviews for Underachievers were better than Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi but the B&S comparisons remained omnipresent. It is probably safe to assume that every review of future Camera Obscura albums will reference Belle & Sebastian in some context, whether they continue to sound like them or not. One aspect of the album that drew praise was the singing of Tracyanne Campbell. Effortlessly appealing and sweet, Campbell's voice gives the songs an authenticity that the music itself can't always afford.
For the band's third Peel session, which took place in early 2004, Peel requested that they set music to lyrical poems written by “Scotland's favourite son,” Robert Burns. The group recorded the poem “Jean” (as “I Love My Jean”) and “O, My Luve's Like a Red, Red Rose” as (“Red, Red Rose”) for the session, among others. They were so happy with the results that they later re-recorded the two aforementioned tracks as studio versions. After the session, Camera Obscura went on their first full tour in the UK and in Ireland. Then, they went on their first jaunt in the US, to support Merge's release of Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, which followed Underachievers. When they came back from the tour, John Peel —the importance of whose support can’t be underestimated — had passed away. Many bands paid their respects to him through music and Camera Obscura issued “I Love My Jean” as a single dedicated to Peel early the next year.
Another loss came when founding member Henderson decided to leave the band. Rather than replace him, the group carried on as a six-piece and relocated to Stockholm for the recording of their third album. They enlisted Jari Haapaleinen — who had engineered albums by The Concretes and played on albums by Ed Harcourt — as their producer. They made a perfect team and were therefore able to make a near-perfect album. Let's Get out of this Country (Merge/Elefant) came out in 2006 to the most glowing reviews of the band's career. The references to Belle & Sebastian in reviews were now serving as more of a backstory, a way of saying that the band had outgrown the comparison. This was still a collection of pop melodies that hearkened back to songs of old, but the songs were bigger and the production much more lush and expansive than anything found on Belle & Sebastian records. Once again, Campbell smartly references her inspirations in her lyrics. The album opens with “Lloyd, I'm Ready to be Heartbroken,” a response to Lloyd Cole's “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?” “Dory Previn” takes its name from the singer/songwriter who clearly had an impact on Campbell with her song, “Beware of Young Girls.” Elsewhere, Camera Obscura wins with the undeniable appeal of the title track and their most danceable, Motown-inspired song yet, “If Looks Could Kill.”
Praise for the band and their new album was coming from all over. In MOJO magazine, Richard Hawley (whom the band cites as an influence) declared “Let's Get out of this Country” to be his favorite song of 2006. The Daily Telegraph named the song one of the best five singles of the year. Stuart Murdoch, in The Daily Telegraph, called the album “one of the best contemporary albums I've heard in a long time.” Whereas Murdoch and company had disappointed many with their 2006 album, The Life Pursuit, Camera Obscura were picking up steam with theirs. The band's fourth album, My Maudlin Career (4AD) was released April 2009. For the first time, the toughest act they have to follow is their own.