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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Camera Obscura: My Maudlin Career


1) French Navy; 2) The Sweetest Thing; 3) You Told A Lie; 4) Away With Murder; 5) Swans; 6) James; 7) Careless Love; 8) My Maudlin Career; 9) Forests And Sands; 10) Other Towns And Cities; 11) Honey In The Sun.

Slowly, without excessive fuss or hurry, Camera Obscura are learning to write songs. If their early albums included, at best, one track — nay, scratch that, one chorus — that was nimble enough to hop on the last wagon of your drifting brain, My Maudlin Career already has, what, two or three songs of that caliber? Something like that. In a sense, considering that the music has always been extremely nice, it is a joy of sorts to watch them grow, at a snail's pace, into more experienced hookwriters than they used to be.

Clearly, they have their own good understanding of what is and what is not a hook: like last time around, they plop their catchiest song right in the beginning. ʽFrench Navyʼ is an emotional se­quel to ʽLloyd, I'm Ready...ʼ, but this time, puts its main strength into the music rather than the vocals — the song's main melody, carried by strings rather than guitar, is lushly baroque and exuberant, using its simplicity to great effect. Of course, there is no concealing the primary target audi­ence of the song, either: the very first line goes "Spent a week in a dusty library..." and you have no doubts whatsoever that this is exactly where the protagonist did spend a week, or maybe even more, prior to "meeting by the moon on a silvery lake" (actually, I presume that the silvery lake was dreamt of in the same dusty library, provided, of course, that the dusty library itself was not dreamt of in some circle of virtual reality).

Anyway, ʽFrench Navyʼ goes beyond lovable and becomes quite catchy — as does ʽSwansʼ, with its recurring nursery-rhyme musical theme (too cutesy and derivative to count as a musical achie­vement on its own, but the theme itself is really only a teaser for the rest of the song), and the clo­sing ʽHoney In The Sunʼ, where, since the song refers to Mexico City, they come up with the great idea of bringing in a Mexican-style brass section; in the end, the ascending-descending brass riff of the song becomes its high point and a great way to finish off the album with its se­cond-catchiest musical number.

That does make three songs that I actually had the pleasure to namedrop, rather than just a boring obligation, which makes the whole thing at least as good as Let's Get Out Of This Country. The rest still suffers from the band's usual weaknesses — too limp, too reflective of second-rate folk-rock and country-rock material... and whose idea was it, anyway, to include a sentimental acoustic ballad named ʽJamesʼ? With the atmosphere involved, it gives me fleeting visions of James Taylor, and I thought Camera Obscura were only tangentially related to that vibe.

I must also complain about the inefficiency of the title track: apparently, like last time around, we have to understand it (since it gives its name to the entire album) as some sort of «mission state­ment», but the statement in question does not go over the usual level of triteness and whining — the predictable he-broke-my-heart-I'm-not-letting-it-happen-again stuff where you absolutely know for sure that, with this kind of singing and attitude, this will happen over and over again. As Ms. Campbell puts her "this maudlin career must come to an end / I don't want to be sad again" on endless repeat, and all of the band's instruments lock and circle around it, drowning out each other in an infinite loop, you know that this maudlin career has only just started, and that, even if Camera Obscura ever end up mastering the speed of the Ramones, they will always be sad. Not because Tracyanne's next boyfriend dumped her once again, but because it simply becomes her. So why not just accept things at face value?

That said, nobody really needs to pay that much attention to the lyrics of Camera Obscura, re­gardless of whether they come across as intentionally hyper-intellectualized (as they did on Let's Get Out...) or intentionally downgraded to college-girl romantic impressionism (as they do here). The only thing worth remembering is that they do their twee thing once again, and land a couple more well-placed melodic hits than is the usual norm — reason enough for one more thumbs up if you like this genre at all.

Check "My Maudlin Career" (CD) on Amazon
Check "My Maudlin Career" (MP3) on Amazon

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