Camera Obscura

As a little surprise for my dear ladyfriend, Cat, we took a four-day jaunt up to Scotland’s unfairly beautiful capital for the bank holiday weekend. Whilst we fitted in the usual tourist trips, seeing as most of my favourite music of the moment is coming out of the city, I crowbarred in a little music here and there, and what follows is a small account of the kind of aural treats we encountered in various forms.

Our first night ended with a (belated, due to poor, poor map reading skills on my part) trip to The Wee Red Bar for the Unpop club night. As an indie-pop night, we knew what to expect, but the main reason for my insistence on attending was down to the fact that none other than Pat Nevin, ex-Chelsea player, commentator extraordinaire and “indiepop conoisseur” (as the flyers proclaimed) was the DJ all night. Quite apart from his self-evident good taste, Nevin was a very nice man indeed, even asking our opinion of what to play later. Cat asked for this:

Camera Obscura – Honey In The Sun (YSI)

Of course, no trip to a new city would be complete without a scouring of the local record shops, and in the process I picked up a couple of delights. From the rightfully acclaimed Avalanche Records in Grassmarket I finally picked up Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and from a “rare records” emporium on the Royal Mile, I was given a John Lee Hooker collection by Cat after she watched me hanker over it for too long.

Pavement – Cut Your Hair (YSI)
John Lee Hooker – Boom Boom (YSI)

Whilst planning the trip, I’d frantically tried to find a gig worth heading to whilst we were in the city, but hadn’t found a suitable choice. Luckily, Matthew at Song, By Toad had me covered and posted about the Grassmarket festival, a three-day “micro festival” I suppose, free to enter, with craft stalls, food and, most importantly, live music. Taking Matthew’s advice/cowing to his threats (you can see this in the comments of the linked page above), we headed down on Sunday to catch Edinburgh School for the Deaf. Despite never wowing me beforehand, their particular fuzzy, punky tones were perfect for the sunny day and drew a great reaction out of the pretty sedate crowd (including one well-dressed drunkard who insisted on dancing directly in front of the stage throughout. Later, he was arrested). Unfortunately, we’d got there a little late and for no apparent reason, the plug was pulled after a couple of tracks. After a nifty pint, we headed back to the stage for The Second Hand Marching Band, who somehow managed to cram an uncountable number of musicians and bulky instruments onto the small stage to perform an uplifting set of brassy singalong numbers that swelled the crowd steadily throughout. We had to shoot off shortly afterwards, but the Grassmarket Festival has, in my limited experience anyway, set a precedent that could, and should be followed. Tiny events like this would be relatively easy to organise in an area with a good enough music scene, and with the cooperation of local small businesses, it’s a perfect way to draw attention to an area’s music or location that might otherwise be ignored.

Edinburgh School for the Deaf – 11 Kinds of Loneliness (YSI)
The Second Hand Marching Band – We Walk In The Room (YSI)

Of course, it all had to end sometime, and on the train home, Cat managed to infect my brain with this apposite number:

Adam Buxton – Holiday Blues (YSI)

Let me just end this little account with a message to anyone who lives in Edinburgh. I envy you. And Because I envy you, I hate you. So lock your doors, because I might want to steal your house and live in it myself sometime, and you’d better not get in the way of my doing that. Bye!

Here’s the second of my three list posts chronicling the best of this year’s albums in my own humble opinion. Just to make it clear, many of these albums won’t have been reviewed by me at the time they were released, so if you’ve never seen me mention them before, it’s just that I’ve actually got off my arse and listened to these albums for the first time in the past few weeks. Here we go!

10. The Maccabees – Wall of Arms

I was really rather excited about this album when it came out. The first album had sounded like a bunch of excited tykes whooping and jerking about in the throes of romance, all froth and fun. I wanted more. Instead what I got was a band grown up, more expansive, more serious and more melancholy. And I loved it. From album sampler ‘No Kind Words’ onwards I was hooked on this new sound. The Maccabees made an album concerned with retrospect – Orlando sings “Those killer eyes don’t look the same as they used to do/Not like the eyes that I make at you” in ‘One Hand Holding’, looking back on the perfect loves of Colour Me In and seeing them as they’ve become. Their sound too sounds like an echo of what they once were, the same tone and style, but somehow lengthened into shadows of what they produced before, overlapping and slowing down. The Maccabees have made, for me, one of the truest “evolutions” of sound from one album to another, not only developing their style, reminding us not only what they are, but what they were.

The Maccabees – Can You Give It (YSI)

9. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career

Camera Obscura’s unique brand of heartbreak twee had passed me by for far too long before I got ahold of this gem of an album, but I won’t let it happen again. Opening with the infectiously joyous strains of ‘French Navy’ and washing over you wonderfully from there, this is an album that flows better than most. What’s most interesting though is how such gentle, smile-inducing music can hide the sadness that seems ever-present in Tracyanne Campbell’s lyrics. Even in the most excitable moments we’re met with “I wanted to control it/But love I couldn’t hold it” – the duality of it all is just perfectly pitched so you get a sense of both sides at all times.  It seems as though final track ‘Honey In The Sun’ points in a different direction though, all trumpet fanfares and quickstep drumbeats as Ms. Campbell says “I wish my heart was cold as the morning dew/But it’s as warm as saxophones and honey in the sun for you”. The real triumph here though is taking such old-fashioned styles and making them sound fresher than any new indie guitar band can manage nowadays – let’s see if that cheers them up.

Camera Obscura – Honey In The Sun (YSI)

8. Telekinesis – Telekinesis!

Michael Benjamin Lerner, with a little help from bandmates and Chris Walla (of Death Cab fame), has created one of the best rock records of the year out of practically nothing. He seems to have taken a few basic instruments, a love for Japan and some analog tape and, with very little effort, made eleven songs that recall the best of Weezer and that stable of American rock. The bastard. From the very beginning, this all sounds like a soundtrack for some fantastic road movie that has yet to exist, with all the required highs (‘Coast of Carolina’) and lows (‘Rust’) and a love interest thrown in for good measure (‘Awkward Kisser’). It’s ridiculously uplifting, not to mention spectacularly impressive.

Telekinesis – Foreign Room (YSI)

7. Mos Def – The Ecstatic

I don’t pretend to know a whole heap about hip-hop. When I enjoy it I can’t look into it as closely as I can with rock, folk or alternative, the whole culture of different producers on one album, guest vocalists and sampling just passes me by most of the time, so I can’t really expect you to listen to me try to muddle my way through tne technical aspects of this album It would be embarassing for us both. What I can talk about is why I’ve enjoyed this album as much as I have. To have a hip-hop album so full of multicultural influences and mercifully free of the ganster mentality that I can’t relate to (I couldn’t sound much more white/middle class could I?) is a genuinely new pleasure for me. From ‘Supermagic’s one-two punch of Middle-Eastern guitar riff and perfectly-delivered refrain to ‘Quiet Dog Bite Hard’s sparse structure and hypnotic rhythms, part of the pleasure is Def’s willingness to let the music work for itself some of the time – the focus doesn’t need to be on him. It’s a refreshing lack of the egocentricity which has become all too common recently, as well as a trust put in the music to carry a song, which in turn makes Mos Def’s own contributions more important and interesting, we want to hear him talk to us.

Mos Def – Supermagic (YSI)

6. The Horrors – Primary Colours

I have to admit, I was never a Horrors-hater. I quite enjoyed the whole gothic Vaudeville act they put on, ridiculous costumes and all. I never thought it was a particularly serious attempt to convince us that they were Victorian Undertakers making garage rock; rather that they enjoyed a sense of the absurd in their music. The audience that took to them however was unfortunate, a group who never saw the irony as anything more than a fashion to follow, which made the whole affair a little less entertaining. It seems that The Horrors themselves saw that, and their subsequent change surprised everyone from fans to the derisory of their critics. The far more measured pace and reliance on distortion as an instrument on Primary Colours remade The Horrors as enigmatic musicians rather than the exhibitionist actors they once were (hell, even the album cover is essentially a blurred, coloured version of the first Strange House‘s band shot cover). Melody overlaps with discordance throughout the album, making the opening of the upbeat ‘Three Decades’ far more spaced-out than it could have been, and obscuring the malevolence in ‘New Ice Age’ and there are far more songs now – ‘I Can’t Contol Myself’ is a laid-back, almost surf-rock ghost train, and ‘Do You Remember’ recalls some of Joy Division’s best moments, making the most important part of this album (and the most impressive) that these are songs you will remember as tunes, not performances.

The Horrors – I Can’t Control Myself (YSI)

God, I’m bloody rubbish at keeping this up regularly aren’t I? Please, allow me to make it up to you with a slice of super-cool rock ‘n’ roll, Brooklyn style (although what in music isn’t Brooklyn style nowadays?) courtesy of the Kilfoyle brothers, aka Calypso. In ‘Casually Sad Mercedes’, all the usual guitar tones, diasaffected drawls and infectious bass are present, but twisted into a kind of early Kings of Leon chunky, chugging chords mould. There’s nothing new about all of this, but there is a feeling of disinterested cool that permeates the whole thing, maybe it’s the fact the song sounds like it’s being played slightly too slow, or that it might all just explode any moment but never does, but it’s brilliant whatever it is. Not only that, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard two people drawl in harmony before, and that’s pretty excellent too.

Calypso – Casually Sad Mercedes (YSI)

Part of the reason I haven’t updated this for a bit is also that I’ve just started writing at UK indie site, This Is Fake DIY again, and so I’ve taken up a bit of time with that. Luckily, it does mean that good stuff I get through them can go up here, and Black Lips’ new single, ‘Drugs’  is just one of those things. You can read my review here, but basically it’s a yelpy, drugged up 60s surf song that exudes nothing but happiness, and would be perfect party music if the recording quality didn’t make it sound like your stereo had broken.

Black Lips – Drugs (YSI)

And, just because it’s brilliant and it came on whilst I wrote this, here’s an extra little ditty:

Camera Obscura – Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken (YSI)

Now don’t say I’m not good to you. ‘Til next time peeps!

Camera Obscura are one of those excellent British bands who, inexplicably, have just never really made it over here, and yet have been embraced wholeheartedly by our friends across the Atlantic. My Maudlin Career is their fourth effort, and  quite possibly the album to break their duck on these shores.

This may be a gross generalisation, but quite how such a rainy country can consistently produce bands capable of soundtracking any summer day you care to think of is beyond me. Camera Obscura are one of those bands, effortlessly producing songs that, on the surface, embody every aspect of happiness and fun. But it’s just that veneer of sunshine that makes them quite so interesting, because at the heart of the band, Tracyanne Campbell’s lyrics are a very different prospect. Very much the brooding Hyde to Belle & Sebastian’s upbeat Jekyll, the music may be summery, but the subjects of those songs are the product of nothing but winter.

From the ‘50s-inflected guitar and doo-wop beat of “Swans” to the blustery, joyous violin strains of debut single “French Navy” every track is unmistakably Camera Obscura but without losing their individual appeal. There are some truly beautiful moments too, the gently orchestral feel of “Careless Love” couldn’t be matched by many other bands so perfectly, and it’s these moments that show just how confident they are now with their own niche.

This album is less about innovation as refinement, but it’s that improvement that makes this album such a joy; this isn’t a band hitting their stride, this is a band who are starting to run after that stride and creating something truly lovely from beginning to end as a result.

Camera Obscura – Careless Love (YSI)
Camera Obscura – Honey In The Sun (YSI)