Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
Record Label: 4AD Records
Release Date: April 21, 2009
Scotland's finest classic pop practitioners are back with their fourth album My Maudlin Career, their first since signing with the legendary indie label 4AD.
How Is It?
If life is like the proverbial box of chocolates, Camera Obscura's music is like a box of Lindor dark chocolate truffles - you know exactly what you're going to get, but that doesn't make each piece any less delectable. Purveyors of pristine pop, Camera Obscura are nothing if not consistent, but are most amazing in their ability to outdo themselves each time out, taking the same game to new heights. Their stellar last album Let's Get Out of This Country set a high water mark, but this band has continually proven themselves up for the challenge of producing worthy follow-ups, and that unblemished track record isn't tarnished in the least by My Maudlin Career.
The band's sound hasn't changed at all since their last release - Camera Obscura sound like they could have fallen out a time machine and are hardly comparable to any other current recording acts. While Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi drew some inevitable comparisons to Belle and Sebastian, the production on their later albums has trended in a more retro direction, making such references less justifiable. The vocals of Tracyanne Campbell have likewise undergone a slight transformation since that first full-length, from understated and somewhat deadpanned to much more expressive and carrying a dreamy quality, seemingly in imitation of classic early-60's crooners, in keeping with the band's musical approach.
With the departure of founding member John Henderson prior to recording Let's Get Out of This Country, Campbell took sole possession of the lead vocals and retains it for My Maudlin Career. Over time, she has refined and perfected her art and is in complete control of these songs, turning in her best performance yet. While even with the band's earlier work, it would take the coldest of hearts not to be melted by her childlike charm, she's on a whole new level here. One listen to the title track is all it takes to be suspended in slack-jawed wonder at the startling ease with which Campbell can break your heart with the slightest inflection, rendering the lyrics a mere formality. I've heard better technical singers, sure, but I can't recall ever having been held at a vocalist's mercy in quite this way before.
Lyrically, Camera Obscura seem to look the past as well. It's apparently much less cool to be a sailor or to be smitten with a sailor today than it was in say 1960, since no one makes music or movies about that anymore, but Campbell seems oblivious to this fact, lamenting the squid she couldn't hang onto in "French Navy." On "The Sweetest Thing," she sings "I'm going on a date tonight!" over background "ooh-ooh-oohs." I'm guessing it's to the drive-in picture show. I'm not sure what it is about these songs that makes me smile in spite of myself. It can't be nostalgia, since I'm not nearly old enough for these songs to bring me back to my youth, so I think the music is just inherently charming. I'd recommend giving a listen to opener "French Navy," and if you're not the least bit enchanted, go ahead and put the Cattle Decapitation CD back in.
With their latest album, indie pop's most consistent performers have delivered a winner once again, bringing us another helping of their stunning blend of classic Motown and blue-eyed soul. Throughout their career, they have continuously honed and mastered their now-singular style, and with every melodic turn and vocal accent on My Maudlin Career sounding perfectly calculated, yet natural, they seem to have reached that point where it's hard to imagine them topping this record. Then again, that's what I thought last time.