Early in her band's career, Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell won constant comparisons with Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch, and rightfully so. Both singers held merit badges in restrained pop aesthetic and deadpan delivery: Tentative romantic encounters were described and sung in a way that hid whether Campbell and Murdoch were sympathizing with the fumbling sexuality of their subjects or laughing behind their backs, or — probably — both. (It didn't hurt that Murdoch produced his fellow Glaswegians' debut, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, and shot the photo on the cover of their breakout album, Underachievers Please Try Harder.) In the last decade, while Murdoch's Belle and Sebastian explored the more direct romantic sounds of '70s AM pop, Camera Obscura has quietly refined its grab-bag of arm-swinging brunette soul, swaying country and lite disco.
It's been a slow evolution, but the new album Desire Lines — which arrives four years after the band's last, My Maudlin Career — shows how far Camera Obscura has come. The band sometimes looked backward; videos for past singles "Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken" and "French Navy" were winking re-creations of a 1960s French pop aesthetic. Campbell's singing voice echoed the deadpan wit of the ye-ye girl: inscrutable and, perhaps because of that mystery, alluring. She can still do deadpan, but there's more feeling on Desire Lines.
Some credit is due to producer Tucker Martine, who recorded and mixed the album in Portland, Ore. His touch is warm, light and crystal-clear. The sighing, swinging beat tapped out on a muted cowbell less than a minute into the first song, "This Is Love (Feels Alright)," sounds like it should have been on every album Camera Obscura has ever made — but if it was, it was lost in the mix. Same with the hazy shimmer of keyboards in "Every Weekday" and the gently plucked guitar line in "Cri Du Coeur." Even with bolder elements competing for space, Martine knows how to foreground the band's strengths. Neko Case sings backing vocals in four songs and My Morning Jacket's Jim James sings in one, and, amazingly, neither overwhelms Campbell, who has always sounded like she's singing from behind a veil of schoolgirl's bangs.
If there's been a legitimate gripe against Camera Obscura, it's that it pulled punches in the service of a caricature of emotion. Desire Lines is more confident and direct than anything in the band's catalog. In "Do It Again," it's clear what the "it" is: "You were insatiable / I was more than capable," Campbell sings. "Turn down the lights now / let's do it again." This from a woman who once sang, "I drowned my sorrows, slept around / when not in body, at least in mind."
Not that she's turned her back on cataloging minor moments that feel significant. Campbell's modesty is intact in "I Missed Your Party," in which she apologizes to a suitor for declining an invitation in favor of staying home to watch Flashdance, listen to Billy Joel and attempt to read Walt Whitman. On this album, lust and chastity sound like equally honest parts of the same whole. The combination makes Desire Lines sound like a career best.
- Jacob Ganz, NPR Music
02. This Is Love (Feels Alright)
04. William's Heart
05. New Year's Resolution
06. Do It Again
07. Cri Du Coeur
08. Every Weekday
09. Fifth In Line To The Throne
10. I Missed Your Party
11. Break It to You Gently
12. Desire Lines
13. Swallows (Bonus track)
Banner Photo © Anna Isola Crolla