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In Depth Review: Camera Obscura

by Archives April 7, 2009

For a band who has built their career on consistency, Glasgow’s Camera Obscura make no diversions here; it’s the same signature autumnal indie pop from where they left off in 2006 with Let’s Get Out Of This Country.
All of those over-cast drizzly Scottish days seem to facilitate lead singer Tracyanne Campbell’s relationship woes ending up on paper, and ultimately onto your iPod. My Maudlin Career plays out like the most tear-dampened pages from Campbell’s diary, set to music. It isn’t so much an act of complacency, as it is an extended search for the band’s own identity.
Swedish producer Jari Haapalainen puts on his Phil Spector hat for the bulk of the album, creating space for the sounds to breathe between airy echoes and compressed vocals. Campbell’s voice stays afloat in the record’s turbid mix, allowing her earnest tone and Glaswegian accent to resound, while all five band-members share the spotlight; violins screech, glockenspiels chirp, guitars wail, organs radiate, and the rhythm section melds.
Lead single “French Navy” is the result of a tryst with a French sailor: Campbell sings, “Relationships were something I used to do/ Convince me they are better for me and you,” like a schoolgirl tease. It is the most upbeat and sprightly of the lot – the song’s production is grandiose with orchestral sweeps and thundering concert bass drum thumps. “You Told A Lie” follows with three-part vocal harmonies and a glockenspiel that lags behind by an 1/8 note, with the wry chorus, “You challenged me to write a love song/ Here it is, I think I got it all wrong.”
“Swans” is a swirling hyperbole of appropriations, sounding ambitious yet still restrained. It would be easy for a song that stirs up the glory of Springsteen circa 1975, the dust-kicking romance-folk of 1992 Neil Young, and the arty shyness of 1988 Beat Happening to implode on itself, but instead it is brilliantly underpinned. Perhaps it’s the wall-of-sound aesthetic that enables such feats, even though results are sometimes less than the sum of their parts; the songs become defined by a touch or trademark, failing to stand alone. But they find a careful balance on My Maudlin Career, using Haapalainen’s professionalism as a complimentary effect, rather than a crutch.
Complaints in the past about the band falling short on any real feeling are somewhat dispelled here. On “Away With Murder,” Campbell’s singing is still icey and detached, but her distress is undeniable, working amid diluted splashes of guitar, weary violins and minimal percussion. Camera Obscura is a pop band after all, it’s just that they trade in the currency of melancholy rather than triumph (or reflection instead of breezy disregard) most of the time. The problem lies in the preciousness of the record and the possibility of coming away from a listening feeling drained and annoyed. But where a band like Belle & Sebastian dabbled in similar indie-pop tropes, the weightiness of the whole package serves only to polarize, rather than galvanize audiences.
To dismiss the music as depressing would be an insult – despite any global recession or perma-cloud cover in northern UK – heart-break still hurts, and this catharsis is ultimately sanguine. The three-song suite for Campbell’s case of the blues is evidence: “James,” “Careless Love” and the brilliant title song “My Maudlin Career.” If it wasn’t for the sweeping string arrangement at the end of “Careless Love,” (or the closing guitar solo on “My Maudlin Career”) this morose trifecta would surely find listeners reaching for some Zoloft. The only thing left to get over is the slight embarrassment of actually playing a Camera Obscura record; seemingly self-indulgent, wait for your roommates to go out beforehand, or better yet – find a good pair of headphones.


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