Ever since they formed in 1996, Camera Obscura have been doing things their way. It’s paid off though. Nineteen years later, and Camera Obscura have established a reputation as one of finest purveyors of hook heavy, perfect pop. During that period, Camera Obscura released five albums. Their debut album was 2001s Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, which was recently reissued by Domino Records. 

Unlike many new bands, Camera Obscura didn’t rush into the studio to record their debut album. Instead, they spent five years honing their sound. It also allowed Camera Obscura to establish a settled lineup. Their story began back in 1996

It was back in 1996, that lead singer Tracyanne Campbell, John Henderson and Gavin Dunbar formed Camera Obscura. Just like many new bands, Camera Obscura’s lineup was somewhat fluid. Their lineup has changed several times. The first was when David Skirving joined as guitarist. 

David Skirving played on their first two singles. Park and Ride was released in March 1998 and Your Sound released in December 1998. Both singles were released on Andmoresound. After that, it took three long years before they released their debut album. By then, their lineup had changed.

The next change in Camera Obscura’s lineup came when drummer Lee Thompson joined in 2000. Then in 2001, keyboardist Lindsay Boyd joined, while Kenny McKeeve replaced David Skirving. This was the lineup that played on Camera Obscura’s 2001 debut album Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi. 

For what became Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, Camera Obscura’s inimitable lead singer Tracyanne Campbell, penned ten tracks. These the track became Camera Obscura’s debut album, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi. It was produced by a stalwart of Glasgow’s music scene, Stewart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian. 

Before the release of Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, it was well received by critics. They compared Camera Obscura to Belle and Sebastian. Melodic, full of poppy hooks, captivating and charming, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi was the antithesis of much of the music being released in 2001. However, how would music fans react to Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi?

When Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi was released on Andmoresound, on November 12th, 2001, Camera Obscura’s debut album failed to chart. This was a huge disappointment. Especially after the critically acclaimed reviews of Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi and comparisons to Belle and Sebastian. However, a year later, and Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi was reissued.

By 2002, Camera Obscura had just signed to Spanish independent record label Elefant in 2002. They were in the process of recording their sophomore album, Underachievers Please Try Harder. Given it would be some time before Camera Obscura had a new album to release, Elefant decided to reissue Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi. Although the reissue of Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi wasn’t a huge success, it introduced a wider audience to the delights of Camera Obscura. No wonder. Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, which I’ll tell you about, is a bewitching album.

Happy New Year opens Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi. Crystalline, country-tinged guitars, percussion and the rhythm section set the scene for Traceyanne Campbell’s vocal. It’s tinged with hope and sometimes, realism. Especially when Traceyanne sings “friendships sometimes die young.” Behind her, plink plonk percussion, chiming guitars, sweeping harmonies and handclaps combine. They play their part in a hook heavy track, that sweeps along, introducing the listener to Camera Obscura.

Straight away, Eighties Fan seems to pay homage to sixties girl groups. It’s the drums that are a giveaway. Oh, and of course Traceyanne’s wistful, rueful  vocal. She delivers lyrics that are akin to a kitchen sink drama. This includes: “you know it really wont surprise me, if you’re a wreck by the age of fourteen.” It’s as if it’s inevitable. As evidence, she offers up: “drinking vodka on the fly.” There’s not going to be a happy ending. Traceyanne sings: “ run away to a bed and breakfast, console yourself with the Reader’s Digest.” Then, strings sweep in, reinforcing this, as Camera Obscura paint pictures of gritty realism during this cinematic track.

Houseboat is a paean Camera Onscura style. It’s a song with a quite a pedigree. Stylistically and sonically, Camera Obscura seem to have been inspired by Lloyd Cole and The Commotions and Belle and Sebastian. That’s the case from the get go. Traceyanne counts the vocal in, and a chiming guitar sets the scene for John Henderson’s vocal. With an understated, retro arrangement for company, John and Traceyanne duet. They’re like yin and yang. Meanwhile, crystalline guitars and sweeping harmonies accompany them on this irresistible slice of perfect pop.  

Accompanied by a lone piano, Traceyanne delivers a melancholy, searching vocal on Pen and Notebook. Occasionally, a bass fills the spaces left by the piano. Later, lush, ethereal strings replace Traceyanne’s vocal. They sweep, then quiver and shiver, before a braying horn adds to the wistful, melancholy sound as accusingly Traceyanne sings: “we’re not the same.”

From the opening bars of Swimming Pool you’re hooked. It’s perfect pop Camera Obscura style. Having said that, like other tracks, there’s a Belle and Sebastian influence. That’s not surprising, with Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch producing Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi. A roll of drums signals the entrance of crystalline guitars and Traceyanne’s thoughtful vocal. There’s a sense of melancholy in her voice. John hopes to change that.  Maybe. He’s a dreamer, promising everlasting love. Traceyanne, however, is cautious and a realist. It’s as if she’s been hurt before, and can’t believe what’s he’s promising. 

Guitars that sound as if they belong in a Spaghetti Western are joined by pounding drums and then John’s vocal on Anti-Western. It’s another love song from Camera Obscura that references Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s 1969 album. There’s similarities. On both cases, it’s a case of opposites attract. Traceyanne isn’t fooled by John’s hitherto charms. Far from it. She rebuffs them with “you listen to rubbish I really despise, and tell me that sand is just grit in your eyes.” As musical put me downs go, Traceyanne’s is easily one of the best.

Not for the first time, there’s a Belle and Sebastian influence on I Don’t Do Crowds. Drums and Camera Obscura’s trademark crystalline guitars combine. They set the scene for Traceyanne’s vocal. There’s a sense of sadness and fragility in her vocal. She’s not as strong as she seems. Storms and crowds scare her. This is her guilty secret, one she’s ashamed of. As Traceyanne lays bare her soul, she’s joined by harmonies and later, a Hammond organ and percussion. They frame her vocal, which by the end of the song, is akin to a confessional.

The Sun On His Back, it seems, has a lo-fi arrangement. Drums are prominent in the mix, while Traceyanne’s vocal and the chiming guitars sit further back. This is the wrong way around. Thankfully, before long it’s rectified, and the crystalline guitars almost jump out ofthe mix. Traceyanne’s vocal is also further forward in the mix. It’s tinged with sadness and longing, while cooing harmonies empathise with her plight.

Meandering guitars add a melancholy sound as Double Feature unfolds. This sense of melancholia washes over you. Then cymbals signals a change. Deadened drums dominate the arrangement, while Traceyanne’s vocal is wistful and distant. There’s a cinematic quality to the lyrics. It’s almost possible to imagine Traceyanne and John heading to the Glasgow Film Theatre where she sings: “we’ll see a Catherine Deneuve double feature, and our lives will fade as in darkness we will bathe.”  Soon, this atmospheric soundscape changes. Chiming guitars and a harmonica take centre-stage, replacing the vocal. Moody and cinematic describes the arrangement. When Traceyanne returns, she’s aided and abetted by John’s tender vocal. They add the finishing touch to what’s an example of cerebral and erudite perfect pop, Camera Obscura style.

Arrangements of Shapes and Space closes Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi. Slowly, and gradually, a spacious,  understated arrangement unfolds. Just guitars are joined by the rhythm section and washes of Hammond organ. Firmly strummed guitars are at the heart of arrangement, while the Hammond organ adds its inimitable sound. Later, and briefly, the urgency gives way to a much more understated sound. That doesn’t last long. Camera Obscura are saving themselves for a big finish. Veering  between flamboyant flourishes and understated and thoughtful, they close Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi on a high, with this instrumental track.

For Camera Obscura, their 2001 debut album, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, was the next chapter in their rise to becoming indie pop royalty. Success wasn’t going to come overnight. It rarely did. Camera Obscura had released a couple of singles. Then, after spending five long years honing their sound came Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, Camera Obscura’s debut album.

Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, could’ve and should’ve launched Camera Obscura’s career. It was packed full of perfect pop songs full of delicious melodies and poppy hooks. What more could the record buying public want? 

Sadly, it wasn’t the perfect pop of Camera Obscura’s debut album Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi. Instead, third rate Beatles’ tribute bands were still selling albums by the bucketload. Then there was the cult of the DJ. The DJ, critics and cultural commentators tried to tell us, was the new rock ’n’ roll. At first glance, it looked like the record buying public weren’t appreciate of the delights of Camera Obscura. This took time. 

Two years after releasing their debut album Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, Camera Obscura signed to Spanish independent record label Elefant in 2002. They rereleased Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi while recording of the followup was taking place. Then in August 2003, Camera Obscura released Underachievers Please Try Harder. It was produced by another stalwart of the Scottish music scene, Geoff Alllan. It was released to critical acclaim. Despite this, Underachievers Please Try Harder failed to chart. At least the lead single charted.

Teenager had been choses as the lead single. On its release, it gave Camera Obscura a minor hit single, when it reached number 182 in the UK singles charts. Things however, would get better. 

Following the release of Underachievers Please Try Harder, Camera Obscura headed out on their first nationwide tour. After touring Britain and Ireland, Camera Obscura toured America. Apart from releasing Keep It Clean from Underachievers Please Try Harder, Camera Obscura’s only other single was I Love My Jean. This was Robert Burns’ poetry put to music. The collaboration between Scotland’s national bard and Camera Obscura, resulted in their biggest hit single. Reaching number 101 in the UK would be a sign of what was about to happen.

Change was on the cards for Camera Obscura. Whereas their two previous albums had been recorded in Scotland and produced by Scottish producers, Camera Obscura headed to Sweden and worked with Swedish producer, Jari Haapalainen, of The Bear Company. He produced their third album Let’s Get Out Of This Country. Released in June 2008, this was Camera Obscura at their best, with a plentiful supply of perfect pop.

On its release in June 2008, Let’s Get Out Of This Country was released to critical acclaim. Sadly, it only reached number 125 in the UK. The hook-laden Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken was chosen as the lead single. This was the reply to Lloyd Cole and The Commotions’ classic Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken. Tragically, Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken stalled at number 144. Maybe being signed to an indie was hampering Camera Obscura’s progress? 

After Let’s Get Out Of This Country, Camera Obscura signed to 4AD in November 2008. They arrived at their new label with fourth album already recorded. My Maudlin Career was produced by Jari Haapalainen and released in April 2009. Most critics loved My Maudlin Career. However, there were a few dissenting voices. They felt My Maudlin Career was sounded the same as Let’s Get Out Of This Country. They’d have to eat their words when My Maudlin Career proved to be the most successful album of Camera Obscura’s career. 

Not only did My Maudlin Career reach number thirty-two in the UK, but number eighty-seven in the US. After thirteen years and four albums, Camera Obscura had enjoyed the most successful album of their career. Then things started to change.

The first change was Nigel Baillie became a father. He decided quite rightly, to put his family before his career, so became a part-time member of the band. This must have started a trend. Other members of Camera Obscura headed off on maternity leave. Just now, Camera Obscura are officially on maternity leave. Despite this, Camera Obscura released their fifth album Desire Lines.

Jari Haapalainen was replaced as producer. Camera Obscura decided to move their music forward. Replacing him, was Tucker Marine. To work with Tucker, Camera Obscura headed to Portland, Oregon, where they recorded the twelve song written by Traceanne Campbell. This was a brave move for Camera Obscura. After all, they’d enjoyed the most successful album of their career with My Maudlin Career. Would this risk pay off?

On the release of Desire Lines, it was released to critical acclaim. Critics hailed Desire Lines as their finest album so far. Sadly, it didn’t quite replicate the success of My Maudline Career. Desire Lines reached just number thirty-nine in the UK and number 106 in the US Billboard 200. Despite that, the new Camera Obscura on Desire Lines was welcomed. 

Twelve years after the release of Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, Camera Obscura were now indie pop royalty. They’d released five albums since they formed in 1996. The album that launched Camera Obscura’s career was their 2001 debut album, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, which is packed full of perfect pop songs full of delicious melodies and poppy hooks.



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