Camera Obscura — Underachieve…

Camera Obscura - Underachievers Please Try HarderThe cult of Twee is one I’ve never really quite understood, despite owning a vintage camera and having nodded my head gently to several Belle & Sebastian records. There’s are a ton of facets to the sound and the subculture, many of which I haven’t even attempted to explore, so I’ll try not to make any brazen remarks or generalizations, at least up until the end of this sentence.

This is a genre full of cutesy oxymorons. I don’t think there is any other cultural subsect out there that confuses me more. I’m not out to praise or condemn anything (yet), but I think it’s worth mentioning the idea that an album like Camera Obscura’s Underachievers Please Try Harder is a relatively solid effort, from the clean and polished (but not over-produced) sound, to the attractively-muted colors on the cover photo, to the simple and sweet melodies on each track. An album like Underachievers has a “total package” vibe to it, meaning the artwork, production and music are more in sync than on your typical record.

Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t feel complete. Or at the very least, it feels superficial. Therein lies my qualm with Twee. What is it exactly that you’re trying to say, Camera Obscura/Belle & Sebastian/student protestor from Paris in the 1960s who has traveled through time to make music in the early 2000s?

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Ostensibly, much of the tone and content of songs by the two bands I’ve mentioned so far have to do with variations on the theme of bittersweet memories, often heartbreak-related, which is a vague-but-powerful medicine. “Suspended From Class” executes the idea while opening the album, and it manages to draw instantaneous and universal comparison to B&S from listeners/critics/fans/enemies/etc. due to the driving acoustic guitar, lyrical cadence and trumpet flourishes. In other words, Camera Obscura doesn’t exactly set up their individuality with this opening track, opting instead for solidarity to a sound they love. Their role on the track is what confuses me — are they fans paying homage or colleagues attempting to develop the sound? Maybe they’re something like oral historians, passing on the Twee sound like an old myth that was passed down to them. But then at what point does their love for this genre become a borrowed nostalgia, ultimately vapid?

In my head, the questions continue past the running time of the track, at which point I realize that it’s a solid enough track for me to enjoy without pondering its mysteries. Of course, I have to shake the feeling that there’s something there I can’t get to the bottom of.

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“Teenager” is the lead single from Underachievers, and it fulfills the role by being a sweet little ditty with rich reverb and a glockenspiel. The standout lyric, “You’re not a teenager / So don’t act like one,” is something you’d expect to hear when talking to someone in those strange times between ages 20 to 23, where you, if you were anything like me, stumbled into adulthood without really feeling like you had the tools to function in society as an adult. There are pangs of victimhood about the lyrics, bolstered by a somewhat deadpan vocal delivery that hinges on melancholy. At this point it sounds utterly formulaic, both when written and when heard, but something about the track is still enjoyable no matter how many times the equation appears, much like Bill Murray roles in Wes Anderson films.

In fact, Wes Anderson just might be the missing link between Belle & Sebastian and Camera Obscura. The sonic comparison has been consistent between the two acts, but it’s the album art that provides a difference. B&S have kept true to black-and-white photos colored by a single shade — a trend that started in the mid-1990s and continues today — while Camera Obscura has a penchant for using quirky, vintage-looking photos. The periods in which the bands started getting airplay are divided by the Rushmore/Royal Tenenbaums 1-2 punch, which could be seen as giving an image to the sound that Twee was cultivating all along: Max Fischer berets and stoic closeups. (Even the teddy bear has thick-framed glasses for goodness sake.)

My conclusion, for now at least, is that an album like Underachievers works the same way as some of Wes Anderson’s most iconic films, mixing together the best and worst ideals of adolescence in a relatable way, throwing it a good bit of mid-century fetishism, and putting it on a pretty platter in front of adults whose youth is fading faster than they’re comfortable with.

It’s quite a double-edged sword, isn’t it? The quality of the album is fantastic and the interplay between youth and adulthood is as uplifting/depressing as any Anderson-via-Bill-Murray on-screen epiphany from the last 20 years. The imagery is sumptuous and inviting, even while its cultural significance is being copied and co-opted in every Anthropologie catalog. The album, like most good Twee albums and most Wes Anderson films, dispenses bittersweet truths like tic-tacs, to the point at which each encounter is heavy in its lightness, or intimate in its universality, or extraordinary in its plainness.

And where does that leave me as I try to grasp what it means when the genre looks like a contradiction on paper but sounds like a dream? Answer: With a postmodern headache.

Artist: Camera Obscura
Album: Underachievers Please Try Harder
Year: 2003
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)


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