Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi
amera Obscura's buzz started at the beginning of this year with the release of its second album, the smartly-titled Underachievers Please Try Harder. The Scottish group quickly invited understandable comparisons to Belle and Sebastian while combining simple pop hooks with a light sound and enjoyable lyrics. To fill space between this release and the one currently being worked on, Merge has re-released the band's debut, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, which is more of the same, only less so.
While Camera Obscura is easy to like, they aren't easy to love. The dreamy sounds (reminiscent of the most forgettable Luna tracks) are pleasing and lulling, but they aren't innovative or exciting. With a steady tempo and identical orchestration throughout the disc, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi quickly fades into the background, where it can let you actually get some work done.
Fortunately, even though the songs won't find a mental space to lodge in, at least one of the performers does. Tracyanne Campbell has a gorgeous voice, and frequently her bandmates allow it room to shine. She sings on nearly all the tracks—and when John Henderson takes the lead vocals, the band loses the mood it establishes behind Campbell.
It’s not helpful that these vocalists have lyrics of varying quality to work with. In general, the songs are clever, but occasional clunkers prevent any chance of a reverie. "Eighties Fan", with its double-bind of nostalgia and disdain for the past, contains the lyrical highpoint of the album. It's a track from the 00s referencing the 60s while thinking about the '80s, all to find some solace when escape looks impossible. The band juxtaposes gentle music with dramatic lyrics ("Drinking vodka on the fly / Your mother has a watchful eye / So look out, kid / She's onto you this time"), but the song resolves this tension when the narrator turns to give comfort in the final lines.
Any emotion developed by a track like "Eighties Fan" is knocked out by the banality of songs like "Swimming Pool". That track's general conceit, the relationship of innocence and slumber, works well enough, but the rhymes drag in their unoriginality. Using "mouse/house", "part/heart", and "deny/try" reveals a lyricist more asleep than his "dormant" character. The band might be seeking a match of form and function (a perilous quest at best), but they end up matching form more closely to the stereo's skip button.
This re-release has obviously been timed to fit between newer albums, but it's a shame it had to come out in the fall. I could use a disc like this in the summer, to soundtrack some quality hammock time. With the days growing shorter and the temperature dropping, though, I don't need any help being lazy.