Review: Camera Obscura’s “My Maudlin Career”

Apr 24, 2009 3:30pm

Scottish dream-pop ensemble Camera Obscura live in an old, classic, musical world.  Leader, Tracyanne Campbell’s songs could’ve sprung up during any point during the rock era from the early sixties onward.  The band borrows heavily from the traditions set-up by Motown, Phil Spector (before the madness) and Brian Wilson.  There are even a few slight country touches.  Campbell’s songs possess a Brill Building-esque timelessness which should please fans from multiple generations.  “My Maudlin Career” is the band’s latest album.  It’s got a lot to live up to.  They’re last album (2006′s “Let’s Get Out Of This Country”) was a perfect exploration of  heartbreak through song.  It set the bar extremely high.  The members of Camera Obscura thankfully do not lose the thread since “My Maudlin Career” continues where that album ended.  From the drum bounce that begins “French Navy,” it’s evident that this album has the same energy as their previous one.  Amid an upbeat, classic “girl group” backdrop, augmented by horn and string-sections, Campbell sings about her fleeting love affair with a sailor.  She can sing about heartbreak at any tempo and make it sound like the best feeling in the world, but this track sounds like a party.  It’s upbeat and happy, even if the subject isn’t.  “The Sweetest Thing” begins with some Beach Boy-style harmonizing (partly provided by Swedish singer Nicolai Dunger) but ends up in more classic Motown territory.  This definitely isn’t “soul music.”  Really, the Motown comparison relates mainly to the melody and the string-section.  In fact, a lot of R&B performers and producers from the late-fifties and early sixties used such bits of orchestration to boost their tracks.  You used to be able to find such instrumentation on the Drifters’ albums, for instance.  This song sounds like it was written after listening to Smokey and the Miracles for an extended period.  Specifically, it sounds like a Smokey Robinson love ballad re-arranged to fit Campbell.  It’s glorious and timeless.  “You Told A Lie” is more of an old-school country ballad.  This is true at least during the verses.  Somewhere in the middle, thanks to some gentle string plucking, it becomes something rather retro and whimsical.  (It should be noted that all of the album’s string and horn arrangements are done by the seemingly ubiquitous Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn & John.  Really, he deserves some sort of indie-rock MVP award!) “Away With Murder” also has that same sort of retro, pseudo-country ballad vibe.  It has no twang.  Thankfully, Campbell’s voice remains gentle, pleasant and sweet, throughout and keyboardist, Carey Lander adds a very distinct, mood-setting synth line.           “Swans” almost goes over the top with its sing-song-y intro instrumental refrain, but it rebounds quite nicely thanks to Campbell’s melody.  She declares, “I’m still afraid to get lost in a city I might explore, / But I’m not afraid to have an eloquent boy at my door.”  She talks to a potential traveling companion about how they should visit America.  It’s a very warm, genuine exchange.  “James” is the best track here.  It fades in, bringing with it a warm, acoustic, airy atmosphere reminiscent of Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic” or Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy In New York.”  Gavin Dunbar’s bass is in the foreground of the track.  It makes make wish I was hearing the song on vinyl.  I somehow think it would emphasize the track’s earthiness.  Here, Campbell sings about a boy who broke her heart.  “James, you broke me. / I thought I knew you well.”  Campbell excels in crafting this sort of ballad.  Anyone who has ever heard the heart-wrenching “Country Mile” from the band’s last album will immediately agree.  This song and that song are distinct cousins.  They are both tremendously beautiful and should be mandatory listening.  (NOTE: The back cover of the CD reads: “We’d like to dedicate this album to the memory of James Simpson Dunbar.”  No doubt, this is most probably the James in question and his death is quite possibly the inspiration for this song. Campbell sings, “I’d like to celebrate you, my dear.”  What better way for the band to celebrate him. Here they have one of their best songs to date.) “Careless Love” begins with another dramatic string bit.  Campbell is again in warm love ballad mode.  In typical fashion, she’s suffering from full-on heartbreak  This time, she’s the one giving a lover the kiss-off, saying, “You’re often bought and sold. / The love you give ebb and flows.  / So I don’t think I should see you again.”  Her target keeps saying he wants to be friends, but she says they can’t.  However, she ultimately does give in, saying, “But I’ll try again.”  It’s as welcoming and sweet as it is sad.  The title track begins with a tinkling piano-line, backed by some very “Pet Sounds”-ian production.  This almost stately piano line plays throughout the piece.  This sounds like yet another break-up song.  This time, it seems to be about a lover who is constantly tormented and harsh.  Campbell’s protagonist obviously loves him, but has to let go.  She says, “In your eyes there’s a sadness enough to kill both of us. / Are those eyes over-rated?”  The song concludes with Campbell singing, “This maudlin career must come to an end. I don’t want to be sad again.”  There are actually two ways to look at this song.  It could also be read as a shape-up-or-ship-out ultimatum.  (I say this because the lyrics are full of mixed messages, perhaps mirroring the conflict the song describes.) Either way, it’s a moving track.   “Forests & Sands” finds Campbell again in country-ballad mode.  The song has a slow gallop.  Perhaps she gravitates toward this sound because it suits sadness so well.  She sings, “I lost a friend, I’m the saddest again. / We kissed once but that was in lust. / I know you need more than given moments. / Sentimental sorries and words only spoken seem lame.”  In fact, authentic feeling is at the core of both this album and this song.  Camera Obscura’s music is definitely genuine and authentic.    “Other Towns & Cities” is another ballad.  The song consists of Campbell’s echo-drenched voice and a soft guitar-line.  It’s excellently bare as she discusses a former lover whom she misses.  They didn’t have the best of relationships. They had their ups and downs. (One guesses the title track and this song must be about the same person.)  Campbell is an excellent lyricist, spelling out details in just a few words, asking, “Were my pupils dilated? Could you tell that I liked you?”  Heartbreak suits her well and people need records like this to cope when they are in similar situations.  I’m sure Camera Obscura have legions of heartbroken fans who can easily relate.  In comparison, closing track, “Honey In The Sun” sounds like a carnival.  At least the instrumentation does.  Both the horn and string sections sound like they are celebrating.  Campbell on the other hand is still heartbroken, singing, “I wish my heart was cold,” adding, “But it’s warmer than before.”  Maybe this is her version of giving this story a slightly happy ending.  “My Maudlin Career” stands as one of the finest among Camera Obscura’s four studio records.  It’s a sadly poetic collection that you don’t necessarily have to be heartbroken to enjoy!  It is an album dripping with tragic beauty. 

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