“And if you have five seconds to spare/Then I’ll tell you the story of my life,” sang Morrissey back when he was a Smith, presenting the alternaworld with a miserablist manifesto that hasn’t been bettered in nearly 20 years—the efforts of Chris Carrabba and his neo-emo ilk notwithstanding. But if Pete Frame were to draw a mope-rock family tree, he’d have to devote a particularly prominent branch to Belle and Sebastian.
The band specializes in the style’s sappy-sad melodies, but its major contributions to the form have been a smartass sense of humor and, especially, a clever self-referentiality that runs the risk of smugness but usually just makes for good postmodern punch lines. To wit: On their finest EP, This Is Just a Modern Rock Song, Stuart Murdoch & Co. offer up a “sorry lament” about a band—“four boys in our corduroys” to be exact—that eventually concedes, “We’re not terrific, but we’re competent.”
With just a couple of tweaks for lineup and gender, that band could be Camera Obscura. Like B&S, the seven-piece outfit hails from Glasgow, and Murdoch even had a hand in producing the group’s signature single, “Eighties Fan,” a fetching ditty that, despite the title, basically showcased the band’s rabid obsession with ’60s-era folk-pop and soul.
Underachievers Please Try Harder, Camera Obscura’s second long-player, finds the band mining that same musical vein. The disc’s 13 songs don’t rock so much as lilt, kissed gently along their way by finger-picked acoustic guitars, delicate splashes of percussion, and, courtesy of trumpeter Nigel Baillie, a little bit of soulful, Dusty in Memphis–style brass. Vocal duties are held down mainly by the group’s two female members, Tracyanne Campbell and Carey Lander, who alternately coo, sigh, and lament with such laconic dispassion that you just know their hearts have been broken in 17 places. At least.
Take “Books Written for Girls,” for instance. The disc’s best track finds the duo coming on all sweetly moody and morose, filled up with tuneful self-doubt like a couple of honorary Blake Babies. “I disappoint you,” one of the women sings, “I can see through/Your perfect smile.” Musically, the song is a bare-bones ballad powered by some barely there high-hat from drummer Lee Thomson and a few halting, overechoed chord changes that sound as if Lander, who doubles as the group’s keyboardist, is working them out for the very first time. Midway through, though, just as you’re starting to think that you’ve heard this particular indie-pop schtick about a million times before, guest star Wullie Gamble (whose name alone should elevate him to band-member status) uncorks some of the sweetest pedal steel you’ll hear this side of a scratchy old Dolly Parton 45.
It’s a genuinely arresting flourish, a completely unexpected and completely charming triomphe de twang. Too often, however, the band is content merely to spin the mope-rock wheel. On “Your Picture,” for instance, guitarist and occasional vocalist Kenny McKeeve accompanies himself on predictably fragile acoustic while offering a bitter farewell to a former friend who’s given up booze for the Bible and the temporarily redemptive powers of fame. The whole thing is so forlorn that when flautist Americo Alhucena, another of the disc’s guests, blows a lonesome whistle, its presence seems both inevitable and like so much overkill.
“A Sister’s Social Agony” is similarly weepy, a pokey girl-group knockoff that tries hard to find the six degrees of separation between the Shirelles and Nick Drake. And speaking of Drake, “I Don’t Want to See You” is a bonus track that only one of his depressed obsessives could love. “I don’t want to be a whining girl,” goes one particularly pathetic line, “but I might be anyway.” Truer words ne’er were spoken.
Camera Obscura fares better when it goofs a little on its received sound and doesn’t rely so much on making you feel its pain. “Teenager,” for instance, is a chiming faux tango decked out with glockenspiel, something that sounds like a theremin, and the kind of shimmering atmospherics Phil Spector perfected back before he became an accused murderer. “Before You Cry” is another keeper, a loping jangle-popper that conjures both the mighty Yo La Tengo of Fakebook and the lest-we-forget Monochrome Set of used-vinyl bins everywhere. The tune even comes complete with a call-and-response guitar/
piano duel in lieu of a boring old guitar solo—a very nice touch.
Sometimes, admittedly, even the band’s best songs sound a little rinky-dink, with Campbell and Lander occasionally making like a couple of teenage girls entertaining themselves during a parents-are-away sleepover. On the other hand, far be it from me to complain too much about that particular scenario: It’s just so darn cute. And sexy, too. On the “Baby Love” rewrite “Let Me Go Home,” the pair back up lead vocalist McKeeve like a couple of aspiring Supremes singing into hairbrushes in front of the bedroom mirror. Elsewhere, the pair’s breathy, inspired-amateurs treatment enlivens relative toe-tappers such as “Suspended From Class” and “Number One Son.”
Still, even at its snazziest, Underachievers sometimes feels intentionally slight, as if the band were too shy or embarrassed to assert its own sound and so opts instead to appropriate one from its record collection. Here’s hoping that next time out, the group takes a little of its own advice and tries harder to shake those stylistic shackles. After all, that’s what those five seconds are for: telling us the story of your life, not someone else’s. CP