Tag Archives: Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura @ Visions Festival, part 2 – the gig

So all that said, how were the band?

This is the second time I’ve seen Camera Obscura, and curiously, both were times they were the final band on the bill at a one-day festival. The first was in Southend in a park (at Village Green, a festival that I’ve played at with an old band, Carterhaugh, and worked at as a sound engineer). That day they were playing to a very mixed audience, another drunk audience, and struggled a bit to get the attention of the crowd, most of whom were picnickers who had long since stopped paying any attention to the tiny people on a stage 100 metres away.

A few years down the line from that show, faced with similar problems, they weren’t thrown and turned in a good performance, although as I said Tracyanne Campbell was unsmiling for most of the set, if not actively angry at facing the same old problems of playing near the end of a day-long event to an audience that’s not really your own. As the room started to empty halfway through the set, leaving behind just those who really wanted to be there (a decent proportion of whom knew the words and cheered intros and danced in a genuine, into-the-music kind of way), she did loosen up, smiling and cracking the occasional joke.

They played pretty much everything I could have hoped they would: Tears for Affairs, Lloyd I’m Ready to be Heartbroken, Honey in the Sun, French Navy (to start their encore – they’d finished with enough time to spare to come back on for a couple, but did seem genuinely pleased at the volume of the audience as we called for more), If Looks Could Kill, This is Love and surprisingly, given the volume of the crowd’s chatter during the first half of the show, James. James is one of the group’s most delicate, beautiful songs, and it would have been lovely to hear it without a load of distracting chatter, but alas. Maybe next time I see them. Lloyd, French Navy and Do it Again were probably my highlights (Do it Again live has more of that slightly buzzy, early-eighties New Wave thing that’s subtly present in the recorded version; if it’s a pointer towards where they’re going next, I’d be fine with it).

Campbell was in great voice and the band all played well. They don’t have any real standout musicians among them, but all of them show good judgement in working out what the song needs and playing just that and no more. The sound was better than it had been during the Antlers’ set (that band’s singer, Peter Silberman, had said on stage that he knew the sound was “boomy and muffled”, so the musicians on stage obviously faced some challenges from the acoustics), with the bass less overpowering, and better clarity and oomph from the drums (during the Antlers’ set, the snare drum in particular was very contained and very dark, with no crack and no power: a shame since their drummer was far and away the best thing about the band).

One of those shows, then, where the band does the absolute best they could have done from a very unpromising set of circumstances, and the gig ends up being enjoyable despite the shortcomings of venue and crowd. But I’d love to see them in a clearer sounding space. Perhaps Kings Place is a little too far the other way – a little too antiseptic, and a little too small – but it’d make an interesting comparison. Can someone make this happen for me, please?


Camera Obscura l-r Carey Lander, Gavin Dunbar, Tracyanne Campbell, Kenny McKeeve, Lee Thompson (not pictured Nigel Baillie, who did sterling work on trumpet and percussion last night)

Camera Obscura @ Visions Festival, part 1 – The rant

I went to Hackney yesterday with Mel and Sara to the Visions Festival. We were only interested really in Camera Obscura’s show at St-John-at-Hackney, so ambled there late afternoon (the day started at 1pm officially), queued for wristbands, ambled up to the church, laughed at hipsters, and their haircuts and their clothes (one skinny guy at an ATM was wearing what can only be described as a circus strongman outfit. He had, natch, a waxed moustache), got some “street food” (burnt pizza for Mel and me; meatball sub for Sara), got in an unfeasibly large queue to get in the venue, and made our way in to watch the end of Jens Lekman’s opening set.

At first we went upstairs to sit, as it was going to be a long night (Lekman was on at 6.15; CO at 9.45). Possibly because of the shape of the room, the materials used in the building’s construction or the overhanging gallery, the sound up there was pretty bad. Tunes and chords were discernable, but words weren’t, so we headed downstairs to the main space to watch the Antlers.

The band – purveyors of heard-it-all-before post-rock: 8-minute songs that each have but two chords and all follow exactly the same dynamic contour, with a male falsetto vocalist that would love to be Jeff Buckley but isn’t even Jonathan Donahue – proved surprisingly popular. The room was full, the crowd was packed tight and were pretty attentive. When the band finished, the room all but emptied out.

Camera Obscura did not really draw a crowd themselves and were, in retospect, a bad fit for this venue and festival. Too old, too unhip, too bald, too fat, too tuneful, too cuddly – take your pick. Their time as anything other than a group for Belle & Sebastian fans to rally round in support of has evidently come and gone. A few hundred stragglers did make their way back in to see the group play, but a distressing amount of them were there in a not-really-got-anything-else-to-do kind of way and talked loudly and persistently through the set. Or played with their cell phones. Or danced in an attention-seeking, look-at-me dance fashion. I did ask two guys who were having a loud relationship crisis to pipe down, whereupon they seemed to leave (one of them had been standing with his back to the stage – no wonder Tracyanne Campbell looked pissed off for most of the set), but their place was immediately taken by five drunk students, including a couple of girls afflicted with conspicuous dancing disease, and there’s only so many times you can a) go to war, or b) move, within one band’s set and be paying more than scant attention to the music.

OK, so it was the end of a long, warm day, and people had been drinking. But really, that doesn’t excuse this kind of behaviour at a gig. Sure you’ve got a ticket; you’re entitled to be there. And sure, rock gigs have to be self-policing on the whole; there are no ushers (at least, not on the floor; there were a few on the gallery). But (“in my day” alert), I’m sure it wasn’t always this bad. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a worse crowd than last night’s, and it really did hamper our enjoyment of the show, to the point where I’d think long and hard about going to other one-day festivals for fear of dropping £30-£40 just for the opportunity to be infuriated by my fellow attendees.

That off my chest, I’ll be back later to talk about Camera Obscura themselves. Happy Sunday!

Ritual in Repeat – Tennis

Within pop music (and we’re going to focus for this post on rock music), record-making is a skill distinct from writing and live performance. Some excellent bands have made only mediocre records. Some artists who were true masters of the studio were never all that hot on stage. For some of the first type of artists, learning to make records that contain the essence of their greatness is a process of stripping away the accumulated fashions and traditional techniques of record making in order to make the experience of recording as much like playing live as possible.

Even legendary figures aren’t immune from this. For me, the Rolling Stones would be a good example of this phenomenon – perhaps controversially, I don’t think they made records that got everything right in terms of vibe, performance and sound until they started to work with Jimmy Miller in 1968. Fleetingly before, for a song or two, sure. But not with any consistency.

Long-time readers of this blog will probably be fearing another moan about the evils of modern record production. That’s not quite what this is, I promise. I raise the issue because I’ve been listening a lot to a band called Tennis these last few weeks. It’s the kind of music I’m a sucker for – fleet-footed, airy indie, with a disarming depth to the lyrics. Imagine Harriet Wheeler from the Sundays fronting a version of Camera Obscura that had a thing for yacht rock rather than countrypolitan and you won’t be far away from sound and feel of the music. I heard the band’s single Never Work for Free on KEXP, loved it, listened to a live session on WFUV, loved it even more, went back and listened to the recorded version and loved it a bit less.

It was kind of dispiriting.

Then I heard Timothy (from 2013’s Small Sound EP) on the radio, loved it, downloaded it to listen to it properly and loved it a bit less.

By this time I’d already ordered their latest album, Ritual in Repeat, on import from the US (it’s not out in the UK until February). When it arrived, I liked it, but found it a little flat. The tempos are often just a couple of BPM below what would seem optimal. The filters and effects used on Alaina Moore’s voice are a little distracting, as is the persistent double tracking. Each song has a topline that drills itself into you immediately. Moore and her bandmates write some killer songs. But somehow they haven’t quite got the finished recordings right.

Take Never Work for Free. Each chorus has the same slightly distracting backing vocal part, sung by Moore, mixed prominently and in fixed audibility. This is instead of, for example, introducing it in the second chorus to build the arrangement, and/or using a different singer to create space and a vocal texture with more width and depth. The lead vocal, meanwhile, is double tracked from the first line to last. The band’s done a few live sessions of late, so I’ve heard the WFUV version, the KEXP version, the UO Live version… Absent these little distractions, all in their way are preferable to the studio recording. I love the song – really love it – but the best version of it is somewhere between the WFUV version and a slightly stripped back mix of the studio take. What’s frustrating to me is that I feel the version I’d most want to hear exists on the master tape, or in the ProTools project, to be more accurate. If the song had been given to a different person to mix*, and there it would be.

The Tennis song where this distance between disappointing recording and revelatory live version is greatest is Mean Streets, where the chosen tempo sounds positively sluggish. The consistently much brisker takes they’ve done for KCRW, KEXP and live in store at Twist & Shout in Denver suggest that as they’ve played the song on stage, they’ve realised they cut it too slow. It’s pretty common for bands not to nail a song they record before they’ve had a chance to take a song out on the road, particularly early in their careers.

And Tennis are still a young band, with a lot going for them. The core duo – Moore, who plays keyboards and sings, and her husband Patrick Riley – can write really fantastic songs, and Moore is developing into a terrific singer. The rhythm section – drummer James Barone and, on record, Riley on bass – is as tight as any fan of early-’80s pop-soul could wish for. It’s just a shame that, right now, they’re not quite making the records they seem capable of yet. Get Ritual in Repeat, sure, but watch the above video too, and hit the KEXP session archives to really get a sense of what this band can do.

Tennis: Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley, preppies


*What’s amazing is that the mix engineer is Michael Brauer, whose work, while leaning a little to the commercial side, is usually impeccable. His mixes on Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space are all-time for me. Interestingly he was behind the mixes on that HAERTS record I was talking about a few weeks ago.

BTW, here’s a very rough demo of a new song. I don’t usually share songs when they’re at this stage of development, but I’ve got another head cold and it might be a while before my voice recovers enough to do a keeper vocal of anything, so here you are!