Thursday Memoir – Camera Obscura & Love at First Listen

1 05 2008

Winter 2003-2004 was a moment in my life where I felt things I am almost certain I will never feel again. I was attending Oxford in my senior year in college, being challenged in ways I haven’t been since both academically and emotionally. I was carefree, happy, full of warm fuzzy feelings for the dreaming spires surrounding me, the friends that had come abroad with me, and the friends I had met in Oxford.

I was listening to a lot of Belle & Sebastian and the Smiths at the end of 2003; winter in Oxford can be dreary and lonely if you’re not among the students who leave after Michaelmas Term has completed, and since home for me was 7,000 miles away, I didn’t go home. Belle & Sebastian’s sardonic sunniness and The Smiths’ downright miserablist vibe went well with the very short days and very long amounts of time I had in which to do very little. Not to say I was unhappy. On the contrary, but there’s something about southern England in the winter that simply demands irony.

I was taking a film-as-lit course with an instructor who sent me to the outskirts of town to retrieve strange and disturbing Dutch films and since term had ended, I went almost every day to rent new, non-disturbing movies. It was a haul, but worth it, because I could get American and European indies that weren’t available at the bodega down the road from where I lived.

One rainy winter day I was trudging my latest bunch of movies back up to Summertown and browsing for a new selection of time-killers. I smiled at the terminally bored video clerk.

And then I heard it. Well, to be specific, I heard this:

Camera Obscura’s “A Sister’s Social Agony.” It was beautiful! The voice! The voice!

I loved it; immediately I had to own it. I asked the clerk who it was. Camera Obscura, he told me, a Glaswegian band kind of like Belle & Sebastian. I hopped on a bus headed back to the centre of town and to the nearest HMV and purchased Underachievers Please Try Harder, Camera Obscura’s gorgeous second album. Frankly now, knowing what I do about them, I’m surprised that it was carried in a large, Oxford HMV. But there it was. I bought it, took it home, and thus began what is still an intense love affair.

Though they have a lot in common with Belle & Sebastian (and their first single from 2001 “Eighties Fan” from their first LP, Biggest, Bluest Hi-Fi, was produced by Stuart Murdoch), Camera Obscura are absolutely, positively not Belle & Sebastian. Gentle charms and harmonies combined with lovelorn lyrics, Traceyanne’s gorgeous, evocative vocals, and some kickass strings. I listened to the album over and over and over again, walking to and from town, on the bus to Summertown, wherever I could. I fell in love, completely, utterly, totally with that album, and tumbled into Camera Obscura hard and fast (it should be noted that there was a boy, too, and my feelings for him, for Camera Obscura and for Oxford are utterly, completely entwined in this massive ball of love). “Knee Deep at the NPL” became a mantra. I can hear you calling / to me in the morning / How could I be falling in love with you?

“Let Me Go Home,” too, with its doo-wop flavor and pretty male vocals (Traceyanne became the sole singer from 2006 on, but I happen to think the male vocals on this album are very nice and bring a nice contrast) had me bopping along from winter into spring into early summer, feeling like every single color shined bigger and brighter. Underachievers was the soundtrack to one of the best periods of my life, fitting in perfectly with the academic, European carefree life I was leading.

In summer 2004 I moved to Southern California, and missed Oxford, college, and that pesky boy more than I ever thought I could miss anything. Camera Obscura were so evocative of the place that they brought me comfort in a very turbulent time in my life. I was excited when they decided to tour the US in support of Underacheivers, and caught their very first US gig ever in San Diego at the Casbah. It was…awkward. They were clearly uncomfortable performing live and the audience consisted of me, my two friends, and four very large dudes who seemed extremely out of place. There are a few other indie kids hanging about too, but mostly the room was fairly empty. I didn’t care. I cried the entire way through the concert, the emotion of seeing them live overwhelming me with joy and nostalgia.

It’s weird how an album can become tied into your feelings about a person or a place or, in this case both. For me, listening to that album now is difficult, because I am positive the kind of optimism it represents for me has long-since died, and it’s a bittersweet feeling that overcomes me now. I still think it’s a fantastic piece of indiepop, but you will rarely find me listening to it. It’s still too emotional, even 5 years later.

So a question I would like to pose: Did this album come at just the right moment because of fate, or because I was open to it? If I heard it four months earlier, or later, would I have thought it pretty but not paid much attention?

Sex and the City style question: Is music like love? Do you have to be open to it? And does that mean that my first, real, adult love (Camera Obscura), will forever be the litmus by which I measure all subsequent music crushes? Hrm?

Luckily, Camera Obscura continue to release brilliant, acoustic indiepop that transcends anything, in my opinion, that Belle & Sebastian ever did. Ending on an uplifting note I saw them again here in Seattle in February 2007 at Neumo’s in support of their universally-lauded 2006 album Let’s Get Out of This Country. The house was packed, the band were – in my own words, later, to a friend – “resplendent” and I didn’t cry this time. I smiled the whole way through, a big, big grin, as my heart swelled and I felt a little proud that this UK band I had discovered in some out-of-the-way video shop in Oxford before they had ever released anything major in the US, were suddenly playing to packed, enthusiastic crowds in Seattle. It gave me a little bit of a thrill, and a lot of contentment.

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