Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Camera Obscura: Desire Lines (2013)



Glasgow's Camera Obscura mastered their affected sound before they even committed much of anything to tape. Songs took a little longer, but not by much; albums the second and third, Underachievers Please Try Harder and Let's Get Out of This Country together remain their lean zenith. But after derailing with the bleakly standoffish and indistinct My Maudlin Career, the group has sharpened again: the hooks are back, but the mood is no brighter. Even when it sounds like a morning-dew orange juice commercial (see: title track), the sadness of their return is all-encompassing.

Desire Lines, their first record in four years, is as dark as its predecessor but as catchy and immediate as their Merge albums, resulting in a keenly Pet Sounds-like juxtaposition of gentle and bright chamber pop with Tracyanne Campbell's most vividly realized demons. She is the teenager needing desperately to connect, the lonely adult needing desperately to connect, and both parties in some mythical relationship that wants so wholeheartedly to work. She sings with unceasing sophistication, but there's a shadow over every moment -- as though all the persona can do to prevent from breaking down is to bite its lip and mumble "all I ever wanted was someone to rely on" (a Replacements quote, and probably not accidental, if not as ingenious as the much less accidental Lesley Gore quote elsewhere).

In contrast to the dungeon of reverb that entranced us on pre-hiatus Camera Obscura records, Desire Lines presents a new "clarity" courtesy of renowned "clear" producer Tucker Martine, but in this band's case that's quite the amusing distinction, since it primarily seems to have meant that a cleaning up of their production trickery led to an exponentially greater quantity of overdubbed horns and strings and fussy little details -- the record is so busy that it can occasionally overwhelm its sing-song pleasures, as on the wanky guitar wheeze-bounce "Do It Again," but there's also something to be said for how the gang just barely holds together the fragmented, intricate but florid arrangement of "This Is Love (Feels Alright)," so unmistakably signaling a triumphant return of sorts. Call it baroque funk: the sax that calmly adorns its hook achieves optimal cute and grit alike, a good complement to Campbell's sweet lilt announcing "I coulda slapped you in the face."

You can track Camera Obscura's evolution by the way their touchstones have moved. You can still hear Belle & Sebastian and Phil Spector in these songs, but it's getting fainter, and the group has luckily gotten over any discomfort with the way that their own recobbled sound seemed to infect the indieverse in the late 2000s. Now, then, we have traces of and references to Beulah and the Smiths and, on the frisky "Break It to You Gently," Howard Jones and OMD -- but it's all just a snowball, the overriding point always being that the band's pop is almost perversely coiffed: here are a bridge and chorus at perfect intervals, here are backing vocals that underline what you feel when you feel it, you are welcome.

Resignation never gave way to pleasure on My Maudlin Career, but the labor now pays off as Campbell's songs achieve a neatly philosophical melancholy that is admirably undercut by her vocal performances, which are her best in the band's history. On the propulsive country tune "Troublemaker," her determination punctuates every rhyming phrase sensually and finds a full-on escape from the deadpan that everyone who's ever sung in this group has occasionally exhibited. There's a sense of tragedy, a bigness to the words ("survival") and even the "ohhh oh" sounds, and while there is something playful to find in the rambunctiously jangly "Every Weekday" ("tiptoein' aroundja," she says), its wordy passion seems fit nearly to shout along to. "Cri du Coeur" is something akin to a rewrite of "Teenager" but slows it down to uncover such pain that its towering conclusion almost seems like a cheat.

So by the time we reach the lovely, modest plod of "Fifth in Line to the Throne," we sense that Campbell has entirely earned the yearning and gravity on what sounds like a classic rock ballad: if "I have seen your deepest flaws" doesn't twist the knife, try "If you want me to leave then I'll go / If you want me to stay let me know." No, it's nothing on paper -- delivery is everything. Rerecording and plumbing the depths of long-expired girl group pop ideas doesn't sound like an innovation or an artistic angle, either, but in execution it can spin you around and break your heart. Sure, maybe there's nowhere to go with these sonics, but if refining how well you can emotionally terrorize and lift up your listeners isn't a kind of evolution -- fuck it, it is, just hush and let them work on you.

My Maudlin Career (2009)

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