Review: Camera Obscura – Desire Lines

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by DREW MALMUTH

All unhappy musicians are unhappy in their own way. Whether or not it stems from similar afflictions, the music that comes out of sad people is unique to their own particular quirkiness. This is why melancholic music will always flourish. Musically inclined people are bound to feel like shit at one point or another, and that feeling of ineptitude, when digested through the singular personality of that musician, is probably something worth listening to. Tracyanne Campbell, the songwriter and lead singer of Camera Obscura, has been a case in point for over a decade. Since 1996, she has been coupling her slight stories of fear and insecurity with 60s girl group crooning and near-perfect pop melodies. The rest of band – which now consists of Carey Lander, Kenny McKeeve, Gavin Dunbar, and Lee Thomson – write the (often excellent) parts that anchor the sound. But it’s Campbell’s singularity that has colored Camera Obscura’s music, and, over fifteen years into their career, her eloquent emotional outpourings are no less enjoyable.

Desire Lines, the band’s fifth studio album, comes after a four year hiatus that was taken due to “sickness, sadness, life, etc.” Carey Lander was diagnosed with cancer and the group stopped playing while she recovered. Understandably, the band felt odd playing “daft wee” songs after such a life-altering experience. One might think that the event’s sadness would inform most of the album; it seems to have had the opposite effect. Desire Lines is instilled with life and purpose. It’s still an album of bright, lush chamber pop but gone are the hyper-depressive tones of “Keep it Clean” or the stylistic unevenness of Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi. The arrangements are taut and focused and the general sense of cheeriness is undercut by Campbell’s shadowy lyrics (anyone else picture her as Ewan McGregors girlfriend from Trainspotting?). Camera Obscura invite some obvious lines of criticism — they play it safe! they sound like Belle & Sebastian! — but Desire Lines is such a pleasant album that highbrow critiques feel completely out of place.

The album opens with a small string arrangement that ends up being in contrast with rather than foreshadowing the rest of the album’s arrangements. Strings make brief appearances but they never form the crux of the melody (a la “French Navy”). The songs are more often tinged with a sense of rousing brit pop or wholesome americana (partly thanks Tucker Martine’s adept production). On “Do it Again” Campbell channels the kind of assuredness in creating pop music that you’d expect from the man she sang to on “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken.” The song punches along, buoyed by Campbell’s sly confidence and the sexual intrigue created by her telling her “insatiable” lover to “do it again.” The eponymous track is slightly less erotic, but it’s a beautiful meld of country twang and Glaswegian charm. Americana sung in a Scottish accent is surprisingly refreshing. By contrast, “I Missed Your Party” incorporates all of the band’s natural tendencies (a girl group melody, earworm catchiness, etc.) but it feels like a song that didn’t need to be made.

Campbell’s lyrics make the album more than just a casual listen. On “Fifth in Line for the Throne” the song is crafted to put her in the spotlight, and she uses it to pour her heart out: “I gave you a regal name/ cause you treat me like a queen but like a queen I don’t know when I’ll be slain.” She creates fictional characters and it’s never quite clear how much of herself is put into them. On “William’s Heart” there is a narrator singing about pitiable man who would have “loved to have a heart of gold” but would’ve had to “have come from a better mold.” Is Campbell the “cruel” observer or the man who is “made of wool?” She is able to use the sweetness of her voice to make her words seem sincere. But they become more deceptive the more you get to know them.

Camera Obscura are old enough to know what they’re are capable of, and they do it passionately and with a practiced hand. Tracyanne Campbell, in particular, has a clearer vision than ever of how her emotions should translate within her songs. It’s not everyday that distraught songwriters choose sunny pop tunes as their creative outlet. So take it while you can. [B+]

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