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Camera Obscura

Following on a long line of Scottish boy/girl combos fixated with the twee aspects of indie pop (from The PASTELS and The VASELINES to BELLE & SEBASTIAN), Glasgow’s post-millennium imitators CAMERA OBSCURA might well’ve fitted nicely into Caledonian imprints Postcard or 53rd & 3rd/Avalanche, had they still been around. The fact that B&S drummer Richard Colburn initially gave them a leg up was mere coincidence, but then that was the nature of a city smiles better and romanticised by warmer climes and the continent.
Formed spring ‘96 by singer Tracyanne Campbell and fellow student John Henderson (percussion/vocals), the harmony-addled pair were duly joined by Gavin Dunbar (bass) – ex-TACOMA RADAR – and David Skirving (guitar), in turn found around various venues and shops. Radio station Beat Patrol was the first to take note of this chirpy 4-piece, while songs `Park And Ride’ and `Porcelain’ were played ensuring interest from local indie imprint, Andmoresound.
In March ‘98, the former track became their debut single, airplay this time via Steve Lamacq and John Peel. However, due to nerves and the lack of a proper drummer, CAMERA OBSCURA still hadn’t played a worthy gig. Towards the end of the year, a support slot to ASTRID remedied their tentative teething problems, and a second single, `Your Sound’, was released to a healthy response. Subsequently opening for SNOW PATROL and LUNA, they duly initiated their own “Park & Ride” monthly club at the 13th Note café. Note that the Camera Obscura outfit on Troubleman Records (who released “To Change The Shape Of An Envelope”) was an entirely different proposition.
In the intervening couple of years running up to their post-millennium return on the single, `Eighties Fan’, they’d now found a drummer in Lee Thomson, while Skirving went off to pursue his own dream. Finding further alumni in Kenny McKeeve (guitar/mandolin/vocals), Lindsay Boyd (vocals) and a string entourage, the sextet’s inaugural set BIGGEST BLUEST HI-FI (2001) {*7}, was as predicted, innocent, wistful and gentle on the ear. Produced by BELLE & SEBASTIAN kingpin, Stuart Murdoch, their pastoral sound embraced the ethos of the C-86 times, drawing from The MARINE GIRLS, TALULAH GOSH and The PASTELS. Lyrically, Tracyanne’s dreamy candy-pop came no better than `Happy New Year’, `Houseboat’, `Swimming Pool’, `The Sun On His Back’ and, of course, `Eighties Fan’.
Radio One icon, John Peel, was a helpful patron at this point, as the CAMERA OBSCURA (now a 7-piece with Carey Lander on keyboards/vocals and trumpeter Nigel Baillie superseding Boyd) inked a unique deal with Spain’s Elefant imprint that saw British releases for their output. The imaginatively-titled UNDERACHIEVERS PLEASE TRY HARDER (2003) {*7}, also had foot in the 60s, via The SHANGRI-LA’S and BURT BACHARACH, while BELLE & SEBASTIAN fans just might’ve been turned on to `Teenager’, `Keep It Clean’, `Suspended From Class’, `Books Written For Girls’, `Let Me Go Home’ et al. Stateside independent Merge Records issued the set with a few extra tracks.
In the absence of Henderson, who left to pursue other projects, a Robbie Burns inspired single, `I Love My Jean’, was the group’s sole offering of ’05, while its B-side, `Red, Red Rose’, stemming from the bard himself. Incidentally, over the proceeding years, B-side covers came thick and fast through, `I Can’t Stay Mad At You’ (Goffin-King), `Modern Girl’ (Bugatti-Musker), `I Love How You Love Me’ (Mann-Kolber), `Super Trouper’ (ABBA), `Tougher Than The Rest’ (BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN), `The Blizzard’ (Harlan Howard), `The Nights Are Cold’ (RICHARD HAWLEY).
Suggesting dissatisfaction with music tags rather than their abode, the long-awaited third album, LET’S GET OUT OF THIS COUNTRY (2006) {*8}, appeared to take them out of the shadows of their B&S fostering and into the realms of Motown-via-EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL. Augmented, not for the last time by Swedish producer Jari Haapalainen, Tracyanne touched the indie-soul of mid-80s fans by way of her `Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken’ repose to a certain COLE & The Commotions hit platter, “Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken”. Orchestrated country in a mellow, melancholy manner could best describe `Dory Previn’ (her subject the troubled 70s singer), `Tears For Affairs’, `If Looks Could Kill’, the heart-wrench of `Razzle Dazzle Rose’ and the title track.
4 a.d. Records would adopt CAMERA OBSCURA’s next flicker of double entendre imagination on album number four, MY MAUDLIN CAREER (2009) {*7}. Top 40 in Britain and Top 100 in America, the quintet (after the defection of Nigel) never changed course or swayed and shimmied from their twee melodies. `French Navy’, `The Sweetest Thing’ and `Swans’ came the closest ever to a hit single, while a “wall of sound” was broken down for the title track.
Derailed and slightly out of focus as the heartfelt Tracyanne and Co were blighted by bouts of personal issues and illness, DESIRE LINES {*7} emerged in the summer of 2013 from time well spent with producer Tucker Martine in Portland, Oregon. Probably appealing to younger acolytes of the BURT BACHARACH traits and sentiment, the intimacy of `William’s Heart’, `I Missed Your Party’, `This Is Love (Feels Alright)’ and the topical `Fifth In Line To The Throne’, were comfortable in their cosy bedsitter environs.
Tragically, long-time keyboard player/singer Carey Lander died of osteosarcoma (bone cancer) on 11th October 2015; she’d been diagnosed with the disease in 2011, but raised over £50,000 for research and treatment for others in her wake.
© MCS Jun2013-Oct2015

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