Nothing Never Changes

It's impossible to escape, so let's get it out of the way right now: Camera Obscura sound like Belle and Sebastian. Now that we understand this to be the case, let's also come right to the point and ask whether it matters in the slightest. And does it? Well, yes and no.

Of course it doesn't matter that, say, floor-stomper 'Let Me Go Home' is such a blatant steal from 'The Boy With The Arab Strap' that you might find yourself singing the wrong song; it makes no odds that the very air of frayed sweetness, of mildly ragged thrift store chic that Camera Obscura revel in is the very aroma that once rose so delicately from records like Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister. Let's take that as read, shall we? No, what does matter instead is the question of whether Camera Obscura manage to make their own sound more that the sum of the influential parts, as the Belle And Sebastian of the past (and once again present) have so effortlessly managed. And the answer is, sadly, not quite.

It's a shame, because if there was no Belle and Sebastian to measure them off against, there'd only be the faded glamour of a rather lovely band here. I'd be saying how much their wonderfully titled Underacheivers Please Try Harder album (Elefant) appealed; how their (almost) perfectly formed blend of '60s and '50s pop was all I ever wanted from a Pop band in 2003. I'm still so close to saying it too, and every time I hear the terrific 'Teenager' or the bitter sweet countrified duet of 'Before You Cry', well, I'm close to tears, close to climbing those stairs once more and shouting from the Cathedral view window of Debenhams that Camera Obscura are God. But I don't. I just take the elevator to haberdashery and mumble to the mannequins that those Camera Obscura types, they're really rather sweet, aren't they? And maybe that's enough.

I know from recent reports that Camera Obscura are (like their Glasgow brethren Belle and Sebastian, and any other soul with a modicum of taste, quite frankly) fans of the god-like Aislers Set. Given their obvious penchant for soft, sweet '60s pop, I rather suspect that they are also rather fond of the Ladybug Transistor, in which case they are going to love the new solo project of Ladybug Transistor and Essex Green member Sasha Bell, recording as Finishing School. Destination Girl is crammed with glorious sounds, all dancing luxuriously around each other and giggling at the references they see in each other. There's flashes of Montage, Moon and Monkees, flurries of Felt, and a large helping of a delicious beauty that is pure Sasha Bell. Pick of the crop for me has to be the divine Pop perfection of the title track, surely a prime autumnal soaraway hit if ever there was one. That's in the parallel universe in which most of the girls in the high street wear black turtle necks and carry authentic '60s Buba handbags, naturally. Which has to be better than the one we got right here, but what the hey.

Actually I half take that back because sitting in the Boston Tea Party yesterday I seemed to be surrounded by girls sporting a kind of Sasha Bell look. Lots of boots and nice black skirts with big belts. It was all a bit confusing and it made me feel old and lonely, but that's another story entirely and in fact playing Destination Girl again is the perfect antidote because if this album fails to lift your spirits then all you need to do is send a postcard to those lovely people at Track And Field and they will give you your money back, no awkward questions asked. Can't say fairer than that, now, can you guv?

Of course I made that last part up entirely. The bit about the money back guarantee I mean, not the fact that Finishing School will lift your spirits. Oh, and you also get a bonus DVD which has some home-made videos and footage of Sasha and her pals playing live. It's pretty good, and worth it if only for the chance to see Sasha smooch llamas and for the sight of some guy goofing around in a wolf mask to the aforementioned 'Destination Girl'.

I wonder if it's Tali White under the wolf mask? The Lucksmith, after all, did supply the lyric to the song, and since we're on the subject, those antipodean angels return themselves with a new EP that sounds, well, that sounds just like The Lucksmiths. When I got the EP in the mail there was a note inside saying 'here's the new EP by The Lucksmiths, influenced by themselves', and it's a decent point to make because the band have really etched out a groove for themselves, have carefully nurtured a sound that is instantly recognisable as being no-one else. Sure, the touch of other artists on their collective soul is still discernable as a soft reflection on their finely grained surface (here it's Morrissey's 'I Know Very Well How I Got My Name' that seems to float in across 'Honey Honey Honey' for example), but there are few others who can get away with this kind of gentle wordsmithery and lightly stroked sunlit chords and make it stick.

Also on Matinee is Slipside's debut album The World Can Wait. I think this was released in the summer, but somehow it passed me by. Listened to now I'm not sure why I laid it aside, but I'm kind of glad I did because it sounds like a great autumnal record, suffused with the air of smoking bonfires, coats buttoned against the wind, heavy darkening clouds scudding in from the west obliterating the blue. It's all very much in the vein of labelmates The Windmills, or if you prefer those more aged references, it's music that follows in the footsteps of, say, any young man who stood with a guitar in the 1980s but who kind of wished it was the late '60s. Turtlenecks, suede jackets, guitars held high, dreaming of Dylan in Don't Look Back (or if you were the uber-hip, in Eat The Document), sitting up for endless nights playing Tim Buckley records... you know the routine by now. And if that sound, that echo of another time when Aztec Camera singles made doors shine just like gold, well if that sound has become just another Pop formula, then that's just fine because formula is the key to all great Pop as we've discovered time and again. And Slipslide have the formula pretty much nailed. Buy this album whilst the leaves are still drifting into death, and cherish it through the winter nights.

Another sweet early autumnal record crops up in the shape of John Cunningham's happy-go-unlucky (broken horse / rowrah). Cunningham, as the hipsters will all no doubt be aware was behind the controls of the Fugu 1 album, and played as part of their band on their recent-ish dates with Stereolab. Given that knowledge, you might have a fair idea of what happy-go-unlulcky sounds like, right? Sweet Wilson-esque sweeps and melodies swathed in quirky, just off-centre orchestration, right? Well, not quite, because really on this evidence Cunningham is more in thrall to the Beatles than the Beach Boys, and whilst that might be something that appeals to many, it don't mean much to me I'm afraid. Sure, there are some decent enough moments, and it's a pleasurable enough way to spend a half hour or so, but is that really enough? Anyone looking for the spirit of Paul McCartney circa 1973 or so (I'm making that date up of course - I have no idea what Paul McCartney sounded like in 1973, but I can take a pretty good guess) will probably think differently, but that's their problem.

Anyone looking for the spirit of the Pavement circa Slanted and Enchanted meanwhile (and for sure that's infinitely preferable to Macca) might care to glance at Finlay. Their debut I Dreams and Visions (Fortuna Pop) is such a startlingly close clone of its obvious reference that it's sometimes kinda freaky. As a result some will clasp their hands to their chests and suggest that this is some kind of heresy, that it represents some form of 'cheating'. Naturally I'm not one of those people. Naturally I think I Dreams and Visions is just another chance to take a noise and hold it close, tell it you love it, whisper in its shell-like that it really ought not to leave you, not even for a moment. Finlay saunter through the dozen tunes here with a guile and a shamelessness that is to be applauded. So guitars clamber over one another and rub sandpapered limbs together over drums that sound lost in the woods and bass lines that roam the halls of deserted, dilapidated mansions. Primitive drawings are scrawled on the walls; strange secret symbols of love and despair. Blood pools in the gaps in the floorboards. A singer moves in stops and starts, pauses for a fraction too long or not long enough and throws the moonlit shadow of a Clinic-al shape.

Clouds gather and the walls falls down. It's only music, it's only art, it's only life. In another ten years someone will make a record and it will sound like I Dreams and Visions and the whole deal will start again. And the ones who know the score will know the score. Will know that all that counts is the sound, is the way the sound works on your spine. And Finlay make mine shiver.

Anagram make me shiver too, and not just for the poise and wit of a line that goes 'this is not New York, this is Oshawa'. Those out to play the reference game will nod and point and say things like how opener 'Your Blood's Too Thick' is splashed with the spirit of the legendary Modern Lovers; that 'Right Where I Was Told' is a marvellous slice of prime Joy Division sulking in the corner with Beat Happening and Lora Logic. They'll say that their eponymous debut EP (Dead Astronaut) is a marvel of post-punk construction that ranks with Radio 4's Gotham; that they are surely destined for greatness.

Meanwhile those out to play the abstract game may suggest that Anagram are a Malevich suprematist painting brought to life; are rusty metallic plates hurled from high-rise parking lots with heady abandon; are the dark shapes hiding in the palette of night, lurking behind the dumpsters with paint cans and saxophones poised at the ready; are the link between the chaos and serenity of the urban landscape; in fact ARE that chaos and serenity all in themselves.

Both might be right, and whoever you believe is up to you of course. Just don't decide until you've heard the record.

© 2003 Alistair Fitchett