Underachievers Please Try Harder
veryone knows the supposed axiom of modern music: everything has been done before and it’s been done better. While some have made careers of proving this wrong, others, like Scotland’s Camera Obscura, choose to accept it and, instead of hiding their influences behind an “individual sound,” bring them to the immediate forefront. As such, there isn’t much chance of Underachievers Please Try Harder, the second album from the six-piece and first stateside release (to sweeten the deal, they’ve given us three bonus tracks) being recognized in any way as an innovative or important release, and their talent will most likely continue to be belied by the deja-vu feel of every track.
Belle & Sebastian comparisons will continue to haunt them like a disgruntled ghost, and not just because both bands happen to find Scotland their home; this album, following in the footsteps of their debut (which very briefly featured Stuart Murdoch in the role of producer; he also did the photography for the new record), borrows liberally from the trademark twee-pop sound that made B&S one of the more dividing acts of the late nineties, and much like the other influences they wear clearly on their sleeves, they can’t be bothered to make it subtle.
Take the opening tracks, for example. “Suspended from Class” and “Keep It Clean” are two straight-forward, dainty pop numbers that could’ve easily been on Sinister, from the light acoustic strumming to the acerbic and slightly tongue-in-cheek, coyly sung lyrics. “Number One Son,” “Before You Cry” and “Knee Deep at the NPL” all follow a similar formula and, despite the familiarity of the production and melodies, work remarkably well. If you weren’t a fan of the style the first time around, however, this probably isn’t going to change your mind.
If Underachievers was just a nostalgic run through Belle & Sebastian’s heyday, the shtick would turn quicker than mayonnaise in the sun. Thankfully, they have an affinity for many styles and eras of music and have tapped most all of them for production techniques, chord progressions and even vocal styles. The Beach Boys can be heard throughout the record, but never as obvious as on “A Sister’s Social Agony,” which terrifically combines the same kind of Four Freshman vocal arrangement that Wilson himself had obsessed over as a teenager with a wonderfully creative and opulent production.
Then there’s “Your Picture,” a plagiaristic Leonard Cohen homage courtesy of John Henderson that steals everything except Cohen’s prodigious lyrics from the classic “Master Song.” It’s perhaps the worst example of the band stealing a style wholesale, which is a strong statement considering the entire thing plays at times like a glorified covers record. “Books Written for Girls” adds a slight Chan Marshall element, its somber tone and sparse production standing in remarkable contrast to its predecessor, the Motown-by-way-of-Morrissey “Let Me Go Home;” like first single “Teenager,” it goes far beyond the promise of the group’s monotonous debut, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi.
To completely dismiss Camera Obscura for their willingness to partake in this musical grand theft or K-Tel like attitude toward repackaging former eras of music would be unfair; free of the burden of meliorating an individual sound, they’ve been able to craft a consistently enjoyable collection of pop songs that inhabit the passion and style of the music they so clearly love. They’ll never have the impact of any of these artists, but for now, in an era where Belle & Sebastian have long since stopped being Murdoch’s vehicle and Brian Wilson painfully moves through his brilliant works in concert with the grace and demeanor of a deer in headlights, Underachievers is a refreshing listen; rewarding even, if you’re willing to look past the superficialities of their approach.
Reviewed by: Scott Reid
Reviewed on: 2004-02-10