Underachievers Please Try Harder (Merge 239)
It's a little quizzical that the influence of early Belle & Sebastian should only start cropping up now; you'd think that all of the If You're Feeling Sinister knockoffs would have come and gone by 1999. But, as my wise and jaded compadre Ryan put it, "It probably took this long for the bands to learn their instruments."
Camera Obscura sounds so much like early B&S that it would seem easy to dismiss them as unnecessary, except that their songwriting is arguably as good or better than Stuart Murdoch's, and they're girl singers, so that scores even more points in my book! And at any rate, I was hooked right at Track One with the perfect chorus "Oh, I should be suspended from class/I don't know my elbow from my arse."
Underachievers Please Try Harder is the album everyone wanted B&S to make after Sinister it presents a glorious alternate history in which Isobel Campbell was able to write brilliantly and sing clearly without disappearing into the asthmatic ether of her apparently lungless wheeze. This record is just as sad and bookish as B&S at their prep-schooliest, with an early-60s bent to it that reminds me simultaneously of the films Scandal and Flirting, capturing some kind of imaginary female coming-of-age that I'd like to have been part of in a lifetime just prior to this one, when I was a troubled 1960s art-school boy with a Teddy Boy haircut and a knack for attracting the fragile and fractured Sylvia Plath types.
Most of the album conjures the innocent yet slightly seedy feel of sneaking into the library to look up books with faded nude photos or juicy literary passages about sex. Nothing groundbreaking about the music, but the chords are simple and perfect, and the band never overreaches or loses itself in cheekiness. God bless 'em for slow-dancing to Timi Yuro instead of rocking out to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
A few tracks feature a male vocalist, which normally on a disc like this would just interrupt the flow for me (not to mention make me vaguely jealous, and burst the bubble of whatever unnamed fantasy I had going in my head), but this guy got my full attention with "Your Picture," the most spot-on Leonard Cohen song I've ever heard, including any song actually by Leonard Cohen. It's fantastic and quite bold. Elsewhere, he shows up to add dimension to duets like "Before You Cry," which is such achingly perfect countrified Merseybeat that I'm forced to give myself a hundred lashes for not writing it myself.
My initial few listens of this disc offered a few wonderful highlights and a larger portion of pleasant album tracks, but now I find myself putting it on all the time, and can never choose a favorite track anymore. Tasty tambourines, acoustic guitars, gorgeous Slumber Party-style harmonies (less sleepy and more just depressed), perfectly imperfect self-taught piano, B&S horns, dashes of strings it's a real pop gem. I really hope they don't make another record, or if they do, they preserve what's been done here and just go full-on into early Heart.
Review by Lord Eric Haugen