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Camera Obscura/Francois
Cargo, London

Handclaps? Check. Melodica? Check. Recorder? Check. Awkward, exuberant dancing? Check. Bookish boys with library tans singing “I’m so glad I met you” to that special someone (ie, bookish girls with health food store tans)? Check. Oh yes, Francois certainly come from a recognised indie lineage – and yet their ramshackle mix of toy town electronica and loose-limbed Modern Lovers style is utterly charming and quietly ambitious. As is their French singer, Francois, who has the air of a future indie pop icon about him.

Try and tick off a similar check list with Camera Obscura these days and you’ll quickly come unstuck. Rather than rock the fey indie girl look, singer Tracyanne Campbell appears to have dressed for a dance at the Algonquin Hotel in the 1930s, her gorgeous black velvet dress the kind of item Dorothy Parker would have traded her cattiest one liner for. Keyboardist Carey Lander, meanwhile, has gone for a far more up to date look – the rural homemaker of the 1960s - in a check linen dress that’s good for a barn dance and feeding the chickens in. You almost expect to see a gurgling infant playing at her feet.

Musically, the band have wandered off into similar territory. Although their recent, brilliant single, “Lloyd I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken”, powers along like the genuine pop classic it is, the majority of the new albums mines a gentle melancholy that’s straight out of the country history books. There are moments tonight when this could be the Sound Of Young Scotland night at the Grand Ole Opry – the indie pop influences of yore blending with touches of Patsy Cline and every sad-hearted, linen-dressed singer who dreamt up songs while waiting for a date who was never going to show.

All of which suits Campbell’s heartstopping, unique, reverb-around-a-teardrop vocal perfectly. The fact that she has a voice you could happily melt into is Camera Obscura’s long unheralded secret asset – and now that they have the songs to showcase her natural style, you suspect that the band will be suddenly acquiring a whole heap of new fans. The slow-paced “Tears For Affairs”, for example, is just sublime, Lander’s warming Hammond matching Campbell’s lyric sigh for sigh, while the ending of “Country Mile”, with Campbell crying “I feel lost” in a voice that really does sound utterly and convincingly lost, is spectacular.

There are still upbeat songs, of course – there ain’t no stopping the indie kids from jiving and handclapping, bless ‘em – with the Spector-esque surge of “If Looks Could Kill” being the obvious highlight. But Camera Obscura really come alive when they slow down and play to their frontwoman’s strengths – a calm sense of style, the steady gaze of a perforated heart and a cast-iron soul, and the ability to make the line “You can be handsome, I’ll be pretty” sound like an impossible dream.

Ian Watson


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