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Camera Obscura - Underachievers Please Try Harder

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Artist: Camera Obscura

Album: Underachievers Please Try Harder

Label: Merge

Review date: Feb. 10, 2004

Underachievers Please Try Harder, the sophomore album from Scottish mopesters Camera Obscura, is not unlike an acquaintance whose personality you can only describe as "nice." Though that word has traversed a staggering number of connotations since, say, 1350 A.D. (including "wanton" and "sluggish"), its current usage has little to no meaning for all we use it: "nice" things and people are harmless and pleasant enough, but wholly bland and hence unworthy of a better adjective. This is, alas, exactly the manner in which Underachievers is nice.

To be fair, this is an album that knows what it is and what it should be – namely, gentle and idyllic twee-pop. Everything serves the mood: delicate guitars, dainty piano and organ, unobtrusive percussion, regal horns and strings, and three quintessentially bored-sounding voices (two female, one male, generally segregated by song). The songs move along at appropriate paces, from jaunty to languid, and layer on the aforementioned instruments as needed. The formula never fails, per se, and when it works, as it does reasonably often, the results are pleasing. But nothing exciting ever happens, no new spins on the old-fashioned pop idiom or particularly colorful lyrical images, and the record's overarching lack of adventuresome spirit detracts from the grace of its individual songs.

Even so, most of the tracks on Underachievers become dull and listless before too long, especially when strung so close together. A few sound better than the others, but fall prey to more specific problems – “Suspended From Class" sounds nice but has stupid lyrics (the chorus being "I should be suspended from class/ I don't know my elbow from my arse"); whichever lass sings on the pensive "Number One Son" does so in an especially annoying fashion; "Books Written For Girls" has a certain charming Halsteadian melancholy (and a pedal steel), but gets boring because it's too slow.

And then there's the Belle and Sebastian thing. Yes, yes, it's so very predictable to bring up Stuart Murdoch and Co. when discussing Scottish pop, but there's absolutely no way to ignore the resemblance. The things that stand out here are by and large things that stood out about B&S long ago, from the vocal tradeoffs to the subtle horn tweaks to the smirking, dispassionate lyrics, and it seems relevant too that the most successful songs (case in point "Suspended" and "Son") sound conspicuously like Murdoch/Campbell joints.

Frankly, aside from a cute cover photo (wouldn't you know it, taken by Murdoch, who also helped produce Camera Obscura's first album) and a multimedia portion with an unremarkable video for the unremarkable single "Teenager," Underachievers is nothing but a warmed-over [version of] Tigermilk. It's a nice album, sure, but that's not going to make for any especially engaging conversations.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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