There aren’t many bands who announce on their website that they’re on maternity leave. Camera Obscura do. They’re another Scottish band who do things their way. So far, that’s worked well. They’ve released five albums since they were formed in Glasgow in 1996. Their most recent album, was Desire Lines, which was recently released on 4AD. Desire Lines saw Camera Obscura change direction musically. 

For two albums, Camera Obscura had worked with Swedish producer, Jari Haapalainen, of The Bear Company. He’d produced their third album, 2006s Let’s Get Out Of This Country, then the followup, 2009s My Maudlin Career. Despite My Maudlin Career being Camera Obscura’s most successful album, Jari was replaced as producer. Camera Obscura decided to move their music forward. They’d been accused of sticking with the same formula. Certain critics accused My Maudlin Career of sounding like Let’s Get Out Of This Country. That must have stung. So Camera Obscura headed to Portland, Oregon, where Tucker Marine produced Desire Lines. Making guest appearances, were Neko Case and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. This was a brave move for Camera Obscura. After all, they’d enjoyed the most successful album of their career with My Maudlin Career. Would Camera Obscura’s decision to change direction work? Before I tell you that, I’ll tell you about Camera Obscura’s career so far.

It was back in 1996, that lead singer Tracyanne Campbell, John Henderson and Gavin Dunbar formed Camera Obscura. After that, the lineup has changed several times. The first was when David Skirving joined as guitarist. He played on their first two singles. Park and Ride was released in March 1998 and Your Sound released in December 1998. Both singles were released on Andmoresound. After that, it took three long years before they released their debut album. By then, their lineup had changed.

The next change in Camera Obscura’s lineup came when drummer Lee Thompson joined in 2000. Then in 2001, keyboardist Lindsay Boyd joined, while Kenny McKeeve replaced David Skirving. This was the lineup that played on Camera Obscura’s 2001 debut album Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi. Producing the album, was a stalwart of Glasgow’s music scene, Stewart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian. Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi was released on Andmoresound in December 2001, but failed to chart. Critics liked Camera Obscura’s music. They were compared to Belle and Sebastian, and were tipped to become one of the best Scottish indie bands. The five years they’d spend honing their sound had been worthwhile.

Two years after releasing their debut album Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi, Camera Obscura signed to Spanish independent record label Elefant in 2002. They rereleased Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi while recording of the followup was taking place. Then in August 2003, Camera Obscura released Underachievers Please Try Harder. It was produced by another stalwart of the Scottish music scene, Geoff Alllan. On its release, it was well received by critics. Although critically acclaimed in some quarters, Underachievers Please Try Harder failed to chart. At least the lead single teenager gave Camera Obscura a minor hit single. It reached number 182 in the UK singles charts. Things however, would get better. 

Following the release of Underachievers Please Try Harder, Camera Obscura headed out on their first nationwide tour. After touring Britain and Ireland, Camera Obscura toured America. Apart from releasing Keep It Clean from Underachievers Please Try Harder, Camera Obscura’s only other single was I Love My Jean. This was Robert Burns’ poetry put to music. The collaboration between Scotland’s national bard and Camera Obscura, resulted in their biggest hit single. Reaching number 101 in the UK would be a sign of what was about to happen.

Change was on the cards for Camera Obscura. Whereas their two previous albums had been recorded in Scotland and produced by Scottish producers, Camera Obscura headed to Sweden and worked with Swedish producer, Jari Haapalainen, of The Bear Company. He produced their third album Let’s Get Out Of This Country. Released in June 2008, this was Camera Obscura at their best. Perfect pop songs full of delicious melodies and poppy hooks, Let’s Get Out Of This Country was released to critical acclaim. Sadly, it only reached number 125 in the UK. The hook-laden Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken was chosen as the lead single. This was the reply to Lloyd Cole and The Commotions’ classic Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken. Tragically, Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken stalled at number 144. Maybe being signed to an indie was hampering Camera Obscura’s progress? 

After Let’s Get Out Of This Country, Camera Obscura signed to 4AD in November 2008. They arrived at their new label with fourth album already recorded. My Maudlin Career was produced by Jari Haapalainen and released in April 2009. Most critics loved My Maudlin Career. However, there were a few dissenting voices. They felt My Maudlin Career was sounded the same as Let’s Get Out Of This Country. They’d have to eat their words when My Maudlin Career proved to be the most successful album of Camera Obscura’s career. Not only did it reach number thirty-two in the UK, but number eighty-seven in the US. After thirteen years and four albums, Camera Obscura had enjoyed the most successful album of their career. Then things started to change.

The first change was Nigel Baillie became a father. He decided quite rightly, to put his family before his career, so became a part-time member of the band. This must have started a trend. Other members of Camera Obscura headed off on maternity leave. Just now, Camera Obscura are officially on maternity leave. Despite this, Camera Obscura released their fifth album Desire Lines.

Jari Haapalainen was replaced as producer. Camera Obscura decided to move their music forward. Replacing him, was Tucker Marine. To work with Tucker, Camera Obscura headed to Portland, Oregon, where they recorded the twelve song written by Traceanne Campbell. Tracyanne played keyboards and sang lead vocals. Kenny McKeeve played guitar, Gavin Dunbar bass, Lee Thompson drums and Carey Lander keyboards. Making guest appearances, were Neko Case and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. This was a brave move for Camera Obscura. After all, they’d enjoyed the most successful album of their career with My Maudlin Career. Would this risk pay off?

On the release of Desire Lines, it was released to critical acclaim. Critics hailed Desire Lines as their finest album so far. Sadly, it didn’t quite replicate the success of My Maudline Career. Desire Lines reached just number thirty-nine in the UK and number 106 in the US Billboard 200. Despite that, the new Camera Obscura on Desire Lines was welcomed.

There was a familiarity to the music on Desire Lines. Having said that, it was innovative. Unlike other groups, Camera Obscura’s music was progressing in a new direction. Describing Desire Lines as cerebral, literate, intelligent, ethereal, quirky and emotive is selling the album short. It’s all that and more. Indeed, Desire Lines which I’ll tell you about, is the latest installment the Camera Obscura story.

Opening Desire Lines is Intro, a melancholy scene setter. Swathes of strings add a wistful and elegant sound, leaving you wanting more.

This Is Love (Feels Alright) is a tale of love gone wrong, with Tracyanne acting as arbiter and maybe seducer. Bluesy horns join the rhythm section as the arrangement meanders along. There’s a a sense of disappointment and inevitability that her friends have fallen out. Although they both have their faults, she’s a “killer tease.” He meanwhile, is a “good boy,” a good boy she’s attracted to. In her heart, he’s too good for the “killer tease.” So when she offers her advice, she wonders aloud. Should we “turn out the light, just give in to the night…on this fine night?”  While this is three minutes of cerebral pop perfection, we never find out how this love triangle turned out. 

Troublemaker sees the tempo increase as the rhythm section drive the arrangement along. Keyboards replicate sirens, which seems fitting as Tracyanne wants to crush: “what remains of this love.” Although opposites attract, they don’t necessary stay together. Chiming guitars, harmonies and pounding drums provide the backdrop to Traceyanne’s vocal, as frustration fills her vocal. She realizes the relationships over and is frustrated and disappointed that they can’t let go of each other. 

William’s Heart is a track that only Camera Obscura could’ve recorded. It has their trademark sound. There’s even a touch of Lloyd Cole and The Commotions in the guitars. Add to that Tracyanne’s literate lyrics and its a potent combination. Not many bands refer to Byron in their lyrics. Camera Obscura do. There’s a fuller, rockier sound to the arrangement. Searing guitars join sweeping, ethereal harmonies as Tracyanne delivers a heartbreaking vocal. Her lyrics have a poignancy and poetic nature, that she brings to life. One of the most moving lyrics is: “is there enough of a spark to sparkle again?” This brings to mind a relationship that’s all but over and is a heartbreaking kitchen sink drama from Glasgow’s Queen of indie pop.

New Year’s Resolution is a laid-back, languid slice of pop perfection. The arrangement meanders along, fuzzy guitars, deliberate rhythm section and cooing harmonies accompanying Tracyanne’s tender, heartfelt vocal. Kenny McKeeve lays down some fuzzy, muted guitar solos. They don’t overpower Tracyanne’s vocal which takes centre-stage. That’s just as well. Her vocal is needy and full of emotion. She wants, needs reassurance that her relationship won’t end. 

Do It Again sees Camera Obscura find their rocky side. Tracyanne finds her inner rock chick. Her vocal is not unlike Debbie Harry, while Kenny McKeeve unleashes blistering guitar licks. The rhythm section provide a pulsating, rocky heartbeat, while a feisty, sassy Tracyanne struts her way through the track.

Cri Du Coeur or Cry Of The Heart is a much slower, soul-baring but dramatic. Her vocal full of sadness, hurt and regret, Tracyanne lays bare her soul. Introspective she realizes her faults. “I never listen to people…I know, I know, I’ll cry.” Drums pound as Camera Obscura create a Spector-esque wall of sound. It replicates Tracyanne’s hurt on this heartbreaking, soul-searching Cri Du Coeur.

Crystalline, chiming guitars and pounding guitars open Every Weekday, an upbeat, joyous slice of pop. This sets the scene for Tracyanne’s vocal, as she delivers a grateful paean to friendship. Her vocal is full of pride and gratitude, as she delivers the slick, intelligent lyrics.  Punchy harmonies accompany her, while guitars chime and the rhythm section drive the arrangement along. When it gets to the bridge, the track takes on an anthemic sound. No wonder. Full of slick poppy hooks, it’s Camera Obscura at their best and most joyous.

Fifth In Line To The Throne meanders, wistfully into being. Crystalline guitars reverberate into the distance while the rhythm section provide the melancholy heartbeat. Tracyanne wistfully, realizes that being Fifth In Line To The Throne means her chance is gone. No longer, will she ever get a shot at the title. Worse still, she doesn’t trust those around her, especially her King. She wonders aloud: “if you want me to leave then I’ll go, if you want me to stay, let it show.” A poignant, moving song, full of sadness I wonder what inspired her to write this song?

I Missed Your Party sees Tracyanne transformed into a 21st century Nancy Sinatra. The only difference is, Tracyanne has a better voice. It’s sultry and seductive, while the arrangement is a glorious reminder of another musical age. With bursts of growling horns for company, a standup bass and pounding drums propel the arrangement along. Add to this cooing harmonies and Tracyanne revels in this new style. This results in one of the highlights of Desire Lines.

Break It to You Gently is another kitchen sink drama from Camera Obscura.Tracyanne’s lyrics paint a picture of a somewhat tragic man. In four minutes, this tragi-comedy unfolds. It’s about an ambitious man who always gets things wrong. Talk about running before you can walk. He’s also about to have his heartbroken. As Tracyanne sings: “you had the office before you had the business, you had the ring before the girl,” the rest of the band provide a melancholy backdrop. Keyboards and a pounding rhythm section play their part in a melodic, dramatic tale of heartache. It reaches its heart-wrenching climax when Tracyanne delivers the line: “I’ll break it to you gently.” Heartbreak, hubris and humor, what more do you want in a song?

Desire Lines closes with the title-track. It sounds as if it should’ve been recorded in Nashville. A pedal steel weeps, as if breaking its heart. This sets the scene for Tracyanne’s tender, heartfelt, impassioned vocal. What follows, is an authentic slice of Americana. A tale of a doomed long distance love affair, Tracyanne hopefully sings: “we could send letters.” As her vocal drops out, the pedal steel replicates her grief and heartbreak on this authentic slice of Americana from Glasgow’s very own Queen of pop perfection.

Four years after the release of 2009s My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura are back and better than ever. Desire Lines is a really grown up album.That’s partly because of Tracyanne Campbell’s lyrics. They demand to be listened to. This isn’t background music. No. It’s too good for that. If you want that, then buy some tawdry chill out album. Desire Lines is full of tales of relationships gone wrong, insecure people, tragi-comedies and kitchen sink dramas. Hurt and heartbreak sit side-by-side with hope. The lyrics sometimes, sound personal. They sound as if they’ve happened to Tracyanne or people she knows. She brings these situations to life. Characters seem very real. You feel sorry for them, laugh at them or pity them. That’s a credit Tracyanne’s skill as a writer. She’s a natural storyteller, one who could just as easily have been an author. Instead, she tells stories with her lyrics and brings them to life with her vocal.

Ethereal, heartfelt and impassioned, Tracyanne’s vocal is also full of hurt, heartbreak and regret. You believe every word she sings. That’s because with each performance, she gives something of herself. Each song that she wrote, is akin to a glimpse at her soul. By singing her lyrics, she reveals even more of her self. Not once on Desire Lines does she phone in her vocal. That’s not her style. Instead, every performance is impassioned and heartfelt. That encourages the rest of Camera Obscura to producing the best performances of their seventeen year career.

While I’ve mentioned Tracyanne most of all, she is the songwriter and lead vocalist, she couldn’t exist without the rest of Camera Obscura. They’re a tight, talented and versatile band. They provide the backdrop to Tracyanne’s stories of love gone wrong, kitchen sink dramas and tragi-comedies. Other times, they play a part in what can simply be described as joyous examples of pop perfection. Slick, polished and hook-laden, the rest of the band yang to Tracyanne’s ying. Over twelve tracks, musical genres melt into one. Americana, country, garage, indie pop, new wave, pop and rock can be heard on Desire Lines, Camera Obscura’s Magnus Opus. Their decision to change producer was vindicated.

Camera Obscura’s decision to change producer was a risk worth taking. From an artistic point of view, Desire Lines surpasses everything that’s gone before. Sadly, it didn’t quite replicate the commercial success of My Maudlin Career. Released to critical acclaim, it still gave the band a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Another chapter in Camera Obscura’s seventeen year musical story was finished. It was the best of their career. Desire Line featured Camera Obscura at their cerebral, literate and intelligent best. Witty, quirky, but full of hurt, heartbreak and regret, Desire Lines is ethereal, elegant and beautiful. Hook-laden, slick, slices of pop perfection, Desire Lines is pop music at its best. Standout Tracks: This Is Love (Feels Alright), William’s Heart, Cri Du Coeur and Break It to You Gently.


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