As-Yet-Unnamed Music Column: Camera Obscura

HEY Y’ALL. Buckle up, because today we’re off to what is arguably the best country in the world–that’s right, Scotland! Camera Obscura, named for a fantastic tourist destination in Edinburgh, is here to knock your bobby sox off.

First things first: Welcome to all the new commenters who streamed in here over the weekend, we’re thrilled to have you. Also, I almost forgot about this post because I am puppy sitting and you would not believe how cute this dog is. Seriously. If I had a picture it would be the rest of the column. Just a picture of Gracie the puppy. It would be PMag’s most popular post, like, EVER.

This puppy is actually named Lola. She is about 70% as cute as Gracie. I know you're jealous.

But! Back to the music. Like lots of indie-pop bands from Scotland, Camera Obscura has a reputation for melancholia. Think of them as the shyer, Supremes-listening cousin of Belle and Sebastian. All three of their records, to date, sound like they’re products of the Wall of Sound ’60s era, and the first two are lo-fi, slightly sobering albums. Exquisite, but sobering. Here’s a taste of “A Sister’s Social Agony”, from their debut album Underachievers Please Try Harder:

Now contrast that with “French Navy,” the opening track of the disarmingly titled My Maudlin Career:

Someone got invited to prom!*

My Maudlin Career keeps that doo-wop girl-group groove and ratchets it up to 11. The horn section alone on this album must be about fifteen people, and I think there’s a tambourine line in nearly every song. Yes! A tambourine, the world’s most irritating instrument, is actually used well for the first time in history. Mixed with the retro sounds is a chiming, shining electric guitar, masterfully wielded by Kenny McKeeve, which doesn’t play a melody line as much as a succession of perfect notes. Lead singer Tracyanne Campbell writes all the band’s songs and plays rhythm guitar, in addition to wearing a succession of the greatest fifties-type dresses ever seen on a rock stage.

She also really likes swans, apparently, as she wears this brooch everywhere.

Her lyrics are dreamy and weird, a sort of math-class notebook doodle mixed with a daydream during fourth period. In “Honey In The Sun,” her heart is, “warm as saxophones and honey in the sun for you,” and to her French Navy sailor, “You with your dietary retrictions, said you loved me with a lot of conviction….” The arrangements are futher complimented by string sections, arranged by Bjorn from Peter, Bjorn and John, who also worked with Camera Obscura on their last album. The resulting sound is brassy, brash, and completely infectious. “Honey In The Sun” is the last song on the album, and it’s a great closer for a record that begins just as strongly as it ends.

The joyfulness of the album is made even more suprising by the contrast of some dark lyrics which may tell a sad story. “Away With Murder” seems to reference a suicide, and “James” is a long, lovely song to a departed friend.

The album itself is dedicated to a James Simpson Dunbar. Whether or not Campbell or the band as a whole lost James to distance, illness or death, there’s really no more moving tribute than this glowing, gorgeous slice of Glasgow indie pop. Some have said that they find the album repetitive, either within itself or when compared to previous releases by the band; and Camera Obscura certainly have their own style that they rarely deviate from. However, I find My Maudlin Career to be the most optimistic of the band’s three albums, and of those three, definitely my favourite. Mr. Brum and I have been known to start foxtrotting in a Zara’s when “French Navy” came over the sound system. I dare you not to do the same.

*I know, this is such a heteronormative cliche, but it’s exactly what I thought upon hearing this for the first time

By Dr. Song

Dr Song is an archaeologist, in exile from the great state of Maine. Her life motto is "Hold fast."

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12 replies on “As-Yet-Unnamed Music Column: Camera Obscura”

I almost let out an audible squee at that dog. I would get not one shred of anything done if I were around that  much cute.

Also yay Camera Obscura! I do find that their albums can get a bit same-y, so I mostly listen to singles instead. They also work well in almost any sort of playlist that I make. Which probably says something  about how much twee, sad bastard music I own.

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