Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi
I had the good fortune of seeing Camera Obscura live in Detroit, back in the hazy days of mid-summer. It was one of those rare instances where my interest in a band peaked at the same time I got to see them in concert. The show was great, and I even thought I’d scored a minor coup by picking up a copy of their debut album, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, which, since it had been more than three years since its UK release, I thought would never see the light of day on a US label. Imagine my surprise and sighing frustration when I found a promo of Merge’s re-release waiting on my doorstep one afternoon in early fall. Ah, well … I suppose if there are albums worthy of owning multiple copies, this is one of them.
More than simply laying the groundwork for the band’s US breakthrough, Underachievers Please Try Harder, this album contains some of the band’s best work. “Happy New Year” lassos a jaunty, puddle skipping melody and rides it over a quietly storming rhythm section. “Eighties Fan,” produced by Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, manages the expanding small-scale-orchestral-soul-epic feel that made Murdoch’s band so endearing. “Pen and Notebook” is equal parts The Smiths’ “Asleep” and Bacharach trumpet leads and string sweeps. In fact, nearly every song on here has a similar, perfected amalgamation of breezy ’60s pop and lo-fi ’80s ornateness.
Singer Tracyanne Campbell is once again the star of the album, capturing disaffected youth in stand alone lyrics better than many of her melancholy peers. On “Eighties Fan” she sings, “run away to a bed and breakfast/console yourself with a Reader’s Digest/read the Yellow Pages all alone.” Later, on “Let’s Go Bowling” (one of the two bonus tracks not found on the UK version) she states, “my teenage years were wasted all on me.” A few years ago this would’ve cut me to the core. As it is, it still stings a little. Having access to these rare songs alone makes this re-issue worthwhile to the handful of lucky souls on this side of the pond to already own this album. For everyone else, this is a gem of a debut that’s still sweet even after three years of age.