The opening paragraph of this review was going to be yet another rant from me about the pros and cons of derivative music and the artists that shamelessly mine sounds of the past to make something new. However, I have covered that ground too many times, and I don’t wish to go there again. I think I am just going to have to accept the fact that all music is derivative of something that came before and leave it at that. Otherwise, these reviews are going to just get longer and longer. And more and more repetitive. That said, let’s get on to the review.
Camera Obscura are a band from Glasgow, Scotland, and they have been in existence for about twelve years. Their sound has gently progressed from mopey shoegaze into a whole new animal on their latest album, the excellent My Maudlin Career. Much like their fellow hometown group Belle & Sebastian, they have begun to explore the bouncy pop of the late 60’s girl groups, also occasionally incorporating elements of country, classic Brit-pop, and a slew of other influences. Tying it all together is the unique and lovely voice of lead singer Tracyanne Campbell. Campbell can veer at times between a lazy Mazzy Star-like whisper and the sweet, ebullient innocence of Nina Persson.
Campbell’s songwriting juxtaposes some interesting contradictions, showcasing both a stunning naivete about the opposite sex while also revealing a sly, biting wit underneath the surface. The country-flavored “You Told A Lie” finds Campbell sadly lamenting her lover’s untruths while acknowledging that she can’t leave him, using a tossed off comment about her eyes to demonstrate that she’s “stuck with them/and they’re stuck on you.” Album standout “French Navy” is propelled by an unabashedly joyful tune while Campbell describes an ill-considered fling with a sailor. “The Sweetest Thing” explores the ups and downs of loving an addict, with Campbell singing, “When you’re lucid you’re the sweetest thing/I would trade my mother to hear you sing.” The end result of these contradictions paint the portrait of a young girl who falls too easily in love too often with the wrong person, but her awareness of this fact gives the album it’s unique bite.
But the real star of My Maudlin Career is the arrangements. Horns blare, strings sweep and are plucked, bells ring, and in all the right places. The last fifty seconds of “Careless Love” find the song suddenly morphing into a cinematic symphonic break. The mix of the album is just right, with just enough reverb to create a sense of space, but not too much to drown out the subtle instrumentation that lies underneath some of the quieter songs. When Camera Osbcura lets go, they allow the horns, bass, and bouncy percussion carry the songs to new heights, as in “French Navy” and “Honey In The Sun.”
I’m surprised that I like this album as much as I do, but it contains so many little subtle quirks and contradictions and then packages them with some truly excellent instrumentation and Campbell’s sweet but sad voice to create a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience that reveals new details with each spin. When Belle & Sebastian explored similar territory on their 2006 album The Life Pursuit, certain parts worked while others seemed oddly forced. Camera Obscura, however, make it all sound natural and beautiful. This is an excellent record.