Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Camera Obscura: My Maudlin Career (2009)



The lengthy lapse since the last post here has been for a variety of legitimate and pathetic reasons, not the smallest of which is that I set a goal for myself -- with the recent announcement of new work from long-quiet Camera Obscura -- to tackle this album full bore to try and figure out why it's one of the biggest disappointments of recent vintage for me. Because my reaction seems inexplicable; more than one critic pointed out that at a glance, it's a carbon copy of Let's Get Out of This Country, the record that made me love them to begin with. I put up Country and Underachievers Please Try Harder as touchstones of a certain type of modernist baroque. The follow-up doesn't really fuck with the formula, so what's wrong?

I still don't know, hence how long it's taken me to actually write this. There are two songs on My Maudlin Career that I sort of like: "James" is like the Go-Go's at a funeral, delicate and pretty, and "Other Towns and Cities" employs a disorienting starkness a la "Morpha Too" behind its circular tune. The latter is impressive because it's a stretch for the band, the only such moment here, and the former because it exhibits something like warmth. If I have to name what's missing to account for the dropoff in affection, it's maybe that... but that's still a "maybe."

Camera Obscura's sound is still an irresistible commodity for me, and on this outling Björn Yttling's string arrangements are often glorious -- to the point that their entrance just before the fade on "French Navy" feels like a major tease and letdown. The production of Jari Haapalainen is equally inspired, as before, but this is all a lot of fuss over a near-total absence of actual songs, at least songs that sound more than half-complete. There are more hooks just in "Teenager" than on the entirety of My Maudlin Career, which might well be all right if the band's crucial stylistic commitments didn't fail so completely to lend themselves to a more nuanced composition style. I mean, let's give it up for the band -- those guitars on "Honey in the Sun" sound great, and they swing a little on "Swans," but it's like we don't really know these people. All plastic, the impersonal posturing of record collectors goofing around in a studio, and that's a feeling that honestly doesn't come across on the two prior albums. (Of Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, I cannot speak as it remains to be heard in its entirety by me.) What's more, these already labored tunes nearly all stretch over four minutes, which inevitably thins out the charm.

Somewhat less easy to forgive, for me, is Tracyanne Campbell's vocal performance -- the depth she exhibited was always what kept Camera Obscura from being one big gimmick, and here she's in surprisingly weak form, which is lethal when she's front and center like in the a cappella intro of "You Told a Lie," but hardly less troubling in near-monotone on "Away with Murder" and thinness and mumbling ("away with mutter" indeed) all around. It's not always just a question of her failing to assert her command over the proceedings; she belts out "French Navy" as though it has some direction that it doesn't and nearly convinces, but with all the bombast drowning her out on the cowboy cartoon "Forest and Sands" you get that she's doing her best, going on and on and on and on with one of the album's many bizarrely convoluted, rambling vocal lines, with what amounts to just bland material, and her labored coolness on this round seems only to add to that problem. She never seems to really rise and she can't truly sing when the songs themselves don't offer the chance; it's like the whole record is a dirge pretending to be pop music. Write a dirge, fine, but go all the way. (Weirdly, I keep thinking of the Magnetic Fields' EP The House of Tomorrow, which attempts and sometimes succeeds to wring mainstream pop beauty out of droning repetition; inevitably, the songs here just don't stack up.) Spector sound requires Spector drama, to put it in annoying crit-speak.

That doesn't mean some won't respond immediately to the dusty library of girl group cheeriness and goopiness here, all these lovely arrangements in search of hooks, but the infectiousness that made Camera Obscura so immediate at their best is lost in these "ooh-ooh"s, even when a point is scored like "I'm goin' on a date tonight / To try to fall out of love with you." That line's buried in the wheezy Skeeter Davis sympathy party "The Sweetest Thing," the uninspired melody and clipped, cut-short chorus of which illustrate the songwriting wall the LP hits again and again: these are weak echoes of old things rather than witty evocations of them. At a different point in their, uh, career, maybe the group's new fixation on country music -- the clip-clop on "Away with Murder" is more Paint Your Wagon than Stagecoach -- might have been an interesting coup for them, but their painful C&W showpiece "You Told a Lie" is like the Carpenters vacationing in Nashville, or a bottom-tier Connie Francis b-side at best. The song (like many here) is a straight, unwavering line that finds no catharsis or outlet, and as for the performance and vocal... maybe the most telling thing I can say about it is it reminds me of the worst output of She & Him, whose entire motif is a dilution of Camera Obscura's dilution of the Shangri-Las, Lesley Gore, et al.

I'm still excited for new material from Camera Obscura -- this sounds distinctly like a fluke to me, and maybe I've just been in the wrong mood. For, uh, the last four years. Plus I can hear something happening in "Swans" -- it opens on a major up-note, you must think it's someone else, and despite another weak bridge and chorus it does have a certain lilt about it in which everyone gives their best. For this specific moment, though, the group stagnates; meeting something nifty like the simple piano trill on the title cut, they give it a big huge backdrop and a completely dull song and that's the M.O. for whatever reason. Even when something builds up like the mostly painfully slow "Careless Love," it's just so twee and "cute" and boring -- emotionless even, and that's a problem. The production and performances and arrangements are still solid as ever, but Career is a cloud of joyless fluff from people who sound like the lifers they aren't quite yet (though they're getting scarily close). It runs together and sounds tired and makes you long for the past, and maybe the grand error is that that last part of the effect is kind of close to what they might have been going for.

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