Camera Obscura: Better Than Ambien


See? No bass player

Camera Obscura + The Essex Green
January 24, 2007

Warsaw is probably my favorite venue in New York for any number of reasons: the cavernous main room, the ornate stage and disco-ball that lend the shows a weird movie-prom quality, the cheap beer, the pierogis. But here’s the thing about cheap beer and Polish food and woozy lights: they make you tired enough that standing up for more than an hour starts to sound like a ridiculously bad idea, so a band has to be at least a little bit fierce or engaging to get you through the night. Camera Obscura is a Scottish twee-pop band with nice production and quiet songs, which makes them exactly the wrong band to play at Warsaw. The band’s indie-big single “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” is a weirdly peppy little jolt of twinkling guitars and humming strings; it sounds more than a little bit like “Jingle Bell Rock.” I was expecting more stuff like that last night, but no. Camera Obscura doesn’t play the sort of reverbed-out narco-pop that a group like Beach House traffics in. Everything is as clear and sharp as it is slow and sleepy, but it works just as well as much lullaby music. Thinking back, I’m not sure how I made it through the show without falling asleep on my feet. I definitely slept really well as soon as I got home.

I hadn’t checked for Camera Obscura since I decided that their first album was pretty much a direct Belle and Sebastian bite, so I was a little surprised last night when I found out that they’re basically an alt-country band now, right down to singer Tracyanne Campbell’s Lorretta Lynn peasant-dress. They’ve abandoned virtually all connections to the gauzy UK dream-pop sound that birthed them; it’s all slide-guitars now. I was also pretty surprised to find out that their bassist is an enormous guy with white hair and a red flannel shirt, which probably explains why you only ever see Campbell on their album covers. The band’s drummer has pretty much the easiest job in the world; he never has to hit hard or accelerate past a contented little chug, and every time I looked at him, he was either playing with brushes or those sticks with the fuzzy white balls on the ends. Between songs, I couldn’t understand a damn thing anyone in the band was saying; everyone mumbled quietly through thick Scottish accents. The show’s volume was also shockingly low, which made it all too easy to talk over the band. If I’d seen this band somewhere with chairs and tables with candles on them, I probably would’ve liked them a lot better. Campbell has a truly gorgeous smoky alto of a voice, and there’s a nicely warm melancholy in most of the band’s songs. But live shows are all context. It’s never enough just to play pretty songs; you have to play them somewhere where they won’t end up sounding like straight mush after fifteen minutes.

Watching openers the Essex Green, I came up with a raw little theory that any non-Sonic Youth band with both male and female singers will always be better when the girl sings. I haven’t had time to really figure out whether it’s entirely true or not, but it definitely was last night. Camera Obscura must’ve figured that rule out a couple of years ago, when they ditched John Henderson, who’d previously shared singing duties with Campbell. The Essex Green is still working it out. The New York band works the same basic blueprint as Camera Obscura: shimmery, amiable indie-pop with vague country aspirations. They were OK, but they’ll be a lot better when they make their dude singer shut up and when they learn to stay the fuck away from watery rockabilly riffs.