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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Camera Obscura: Let's Get Out Of This Country


1) Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken; 2) Tears For Affairs; 3) Come Back Margaret; 4) Dory Previn; 5) The False Contender; 6) Let's Get Out Of This Country; 7) Country Mile; 8) If Looks Could Kill; 9) I Need All The Friends I Can Get; 10) Razzle Dazzle Rose.

As their mentors and chief competitors opted for revving up their sound a bit, and substituting the slow «chamber folk» stuff of their early records for the upbeat electric pop melancholia of Dear Catastrophe Waitress (released just one month after Camera Obscura's Underachievers) and particularly The Life Pursuit, Tracyanne and Co. had little choice but to follow — difficult to do otherwise if you spend your time in a constant mind-meld with Stuart Murdoch.

And for one song out of ten at least, this predictable turnaround worked its wonder: ʽLloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbrokenʼ, maybe accidentally, maybe not, happens to be one of the most lo­vingly written, arranged, and recorded pop songs of the decade. In order to get its title, you must either be an educated connoisseur or somebody who kept a sharp ear out for new sounds in the mid-Eighties, since it «echoes» back Lloyd Cole's largely forgotten ʽAre You Ready To Be Heartbroken?ʼ from 1984 — but in reality, the song works fine on its own, since, fortunately for us all, Tracyanne's lyrical twists, no matter how obscure their points of reference, never sound like the primary attraction for her songs. In fact, her charming voice acts as a perfect neutralizer for any «snob acid burns» that the words might inflict upon a poor, innocent brain, not yet well versed in the ocean of cultural trivia...

...where were we, anyway? Oh yes, ʽI'm Ready To Be Heartbrokenʼ is a song that is simple, up to the point, repetitive, catchy, and, despite being formally dedicated to issues of jealousy and dis­appointment, radiates positive energy with all its might. Yes, even here, Camera Obscura's seri­ous artistic limitations are plainly evident. The little organ flourish that leads in the main melody and then interrupts it again midway through seems somewhat out of place. Build-up and deve­lopment are non-existent: once you've heard the first verse/chorus, you've heard it all, and there isn't even any bridge section to play around with the dynamics. The lyrics are minimalistic, and you'd think that at least the second line of the chorus ("Hey Lloyd, I'm ready to be heartbroken / 'Cause I can't see further than my own nose at this moment") could use some variation over the multiple repetitions. In other words — no, not Beatleworthy. But minimalistically beautiful all the same, with the strings taking upon themselves the main burden of supplying the melody and the rock instruments primarily supplying the rapid, powerful beat.

And most importantly, now that Campbell has snapped out of her forever-somnambulist persona, it turns out that her voice is capable of loud, ringing modulation, showing some technical and emotional range — the major chorus hook is all dependent on starting on high ("Hey Lloyd..."), then, as if the singer catches herself in embarrassment over getting too excited, going down on the second line. Nothing too difficult or original about that, just a feeling of healthy freshness, sunniness, and authenticity that cannot be shaked off by any technical skepticism.

The feeling that, after two oh-so-nice, but ultimately forgettable, albums, Camera Obscura may have finally struck gold almost continues to linger on for the next track at least — ʽTears For Affairsʼ is already slower, flabbier, and subtler than the opening bomb, but it is one more exam­ple of Tracyanne continuing to experiment with her singing: the little falsetto «curls» at the end of verse lines work as cunningly sexy punches, and contrast effectively with the «reproaching» intonation of the chorus ("you had to drive, look me in the eye, whisper don't cry..."). Again, the song works on something more than pure atmosphere — finally, you get some elements that stick out far enough to sink your analytical teeth into them.

Unfortunately, this feast of the senses does not last for long, and by the time the third and fourth tracks come along, we are largely back to the old mood-setting formula. The songs still tend to be louder and deeper than they used to (probably courtesy of the band's new producer, Jari Haapa­lainen, one of Sweden's indie heroes), but there is nothing intelligent I could tell you about ʽDory Previnʼ except for redirecting you to Wikipedia if you do not know who that is, or congratulating Tracyanne on choosing sophisticated allegories for her own troubles with men if you do — mu­sically, the song is sort of a country-western-meets-baroque-pop mushy thing.

On a song-for-song basis, I count two more relative successes. The title track brings back the lively tempo, the wall of sound, throws in a nice variation on an all-too familiar folk-pop riff, and probably expresses Campbell's personal philosophy better than everything else on here (the line "I'll admit I am bored with me" hits particularly hard). And the final number, ʽRazzle Dazzle Roseʼ, has a beautiful trumpet part — same «elegant melancholia» style as everything else on the album, but finally, with its own voice that stands out against the collective instrumental drone.

If anything, this might just be Camera Obscura's weakest point: they are so in love with their ins­truments that they always tend to cram them together, and since they are playing different parts, the result is a lovably polyphonic, but confusing sound where the very idea of a «lead instrument» is dismissed as ridiculous. Why? They are perfectly capable of creating and playing a lovely melody without having it dissolved in the overall noise, as the best of these songs clearly de­monstrate. Too many cooks, on the other hand, can do unspeakable things to the broth.

Still, Let's Get Out Of This Country is really as good as this band ever gets in its hipster haze, and besides, let us show consistency — I've always preferred the «upbeat» stage of Belle & Sebastian to their «drowsy» years, so why should this be different for their most loyal disciples? Clearly a thumbs up here, and ʽLloydʼ at least is a must-hear for fans of twee beauty worldwide. Not too sure about the album cover, though — the hippie background does not seem to mesh well enough with the «don't bother me, I'm listening to my favorite college lecturer» look on the photo. But maybe that was just the point.

Check "Let's Get Out Of This Country" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Let's Get Out Of This Country" (MP3) on Amazon

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