Noteworthy: a weekly music column

By Peter Walters

This past Tuesday marked the addition of another gem to Camera Obscura’s musical legacy. The Glasgow band that formed back in 1996 still has it. The quality of their albums hasn’t wavered a bit in over 10 years, and their material has leaned in enough different directions to keep listeners intrigued. “My Maudlin Career” upon a couple listens through, is a very solid album. The 60s pop inspired tunes are easy on the ears and make one want to lie back and contemplate the meaning of Tracyanne Campbell’s sappy song words. Irony with a touch of sarcasm? Heartbreak? Listening to the catalog of Camera Obscura’s work, it’s easy to detect the abundance of sentimentalism. It’s part of their style. Campbell enjoys painting pictures of troubled lovers, disappointment, and sweet talk. It’s all well and good though, the melodies are top notch and the songs are composed expertly. The classic roller coaster of love idea works as well as it always has at arousing emotion. It’s relieving to hear a new album that has straightforward lyrics and a good story to tell. So much new music rejects the idea of story telling, intelligible vocal tracks, or words at all. “My Maudlin Career” is shamelessly sentimental, and it’s great.

The record jumps right into things with two upbeat hits by the rhythm section. “French Navy,” the opening track, is all about the excitement of two lovers coming together. “We met by a trick of fate,” sings Campbell, giving the beginning of the album a feeling of spontaneity. The song plays like a Motown hit until it reaches the chorus. The bass walks, the clean guitar dances around arpeggios and blues licks, the drums and keys bump with a companion triangle in the background. The chorus climaxes with strings, shakers, horns while Campbell repeats “I wanted to control it, but love I couldn’t hold it”. It’s a nice touch, and while I’m fully aware it looks cornier than Raffi on paper, the words are a great match for the feel of the song when you hear it.

The next song, “The Sweetest Thing,” eases the album into the direction of the next several songs. It’s a love song that Campbell “wrote” but thinks she “got it wrong”. The mix of sad and sweet helps to move the listener from the upbeat, butterfly inducing inaugural track to the down-hearted ballads of the record’s second half. Thanks to the diverse moods of the songs we get to hear several different musical styles from Motown to the blues, to country ballad. The production style helps to combine these very different sounds into the group’s modern day Belle & Sebastian-esque Scot rock.

I think the question that is on a lot of people’s minds is whether “My Maudlin Career” is as good as the band’s last record “Let’s Get Out of This Country”. The answer is yes, but it needs some qualification. Both albums follow similar formulas in terms of song writing, with great success. What’s changed is the instrumentation. “Let’s Get Out of This Country” was much heavier on the keys and the tambourine and was also much more reflective of Belle & Sebastian’s melodies and style. This album was very well received, and I would say a smashing success. Since 2006 when it was released, the band has switched to a bigger label, causing some to fear that the band might move away from what they do so well. “My Maudlin Career” stays true to tradition with well written songs that stick with the listener.

Tracyanne’s voice is one of my favorites. It’s as smooth and strong as coffee. I used to think Isobel Campbell (no relation) of Belle & Sebastian held that special place in my heart (now I’m getting maudlin too). Tracyanne’s got more spark, even when she’s singing about sad things. That is just one of the many comparisons usually made between Camera Obscura and B&S. They were at one point playing in the same town at the same time playing similar music, so it’s easy to see why comparisons are made. Despite the similarities, I see no problem with the two bands sounding alike. All it means is that there is twice as much great music floating around.

The tale of love, lies, heartbreak, sadness has to end somehow. Camera Obscura chose to bring us full circle by ending with a happier Motown tune “Honey in the Sun”. Campbell says “I wish my heart were cold, but it’s warmer than before” when the song reaches the chorus. She hints at feeling helpless in trying to resist love, leaving us where we started, with unexpected feelings between two lovers.