Three years ago, Camera Obscuraâ€™s brilliant single â€œLloyd, Iâ€™m Ready to Be Heartbrokenâ€ was one of 2006â€™s most music-blogged tracks â€“ for a while there, you couldnâ€™t swing a dead cat around the Internet without being offered a chance to download it. As a result, the enchantingly befrocked Scottish lass Tracyanne Campbell and her mates are a lot less â€¦ obscure than they used to be as they release their fourth full-length, My Maudlin Career, this week.
Indeed, for the first time in their (actually quite impressive) career, Camera Obscura are faced with the pressure of living up to the heightened expectations of eager audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. To that end, the band switched labels — from Merge to 4AD â€“ and Campbell seems to be working with new hair and makeup consultants to tweak her determinedly frumpish look.
Itâ€™s a challenge, to be sure, following up an album like Letâ€™s Get Out of This Country that is generally considered one of the best indie-pop releases ever. Still, itâ€™s a problem a lot of bands would like to have. So câ€™mon, Tracyanne â€“ why still so glum?
Better yet, why not? Last time we encountered Campbell she was tossed on loveâ€™s rocky shoals â€“ and there she remains throughout My Maudlin Career. Itâ€™s a good thing, too; sheâ€™s got the perfect voice for it, a bright yet laconic instrument that never loses its melancholic edge even when her band surrounds her with a bouncy tune like the albumâ€™s lead track, â€œFrench Navy.â€ Thatâ€™s her gift â€“ one she shares with Morrissey (in his prime) and Belle & Sebastianâ€™s Stuart Murdoch (whatâ€™s a CO review without a B&S reference?), other charter members of the our-songs-are-so-glib-they-have-commas-in-the-titles club. It allows her to give away the sad ending that inevitably awaits even a song that includes the absurd couplet, â€œYou with your dietary restriction / Said you loved me with a lot of conviction.â€
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â€œFrench Navyâ€ sounds a lot like Letâ€™s Get Out of This Country, and so do several other tracks on the new album. Thatâ€™s hardly a surprise, considering the previous workâ€™s success and the continued presence of producer Jari Haapalainen. His now-familiar M.O. starts with a knack for fashioning irresistible instrumental hooks, employing horns and keyboards that are layered atop and intertwined amongst the bandâ€™s own perky melodies. Such stacking of hooks is an age-old trick, dating back at least as far as George Harrisonâ€™s guitar runs and the Muscle Shoals hornsâ€™ contributions to the work of Otis, Aretha and Dusty Springfield; in fact, thereâ€™s a distinct Dusty-esque quality to â€œFrench Navyâ€ as well as â€œMy Maudlin Career,â€ â€œSwans,â€ and the terrific album closer â€œHoney in the Sun.â€
Campbellâ€™s vocals slot in nicely in such an environment, which Haapalainen amps up by drowning the proceedings in so much echo youâ€™d think the album was recorded in Phil Spectorâ€™s submarine. This time, the hook enhancement also includes occasional string arrangements courtesy of BjÃ¶rn Yttling (the nominally central figure in Peter, BjÃ¶rn and John); his work adds grandeur to the albumâ€™s finest ballad, â€œCareless Love.â€
Generally speaking, My Maudlin Career moves at a slower pace than its predecessor; thatâ€™s only a problem early on, when the back-to-back ballads â€œYou Told a Lieâ€ and â€œAway with Murderâ€ slow the albumâ€™s momentum considerably. Even so, theyâ€™re terrific songs, as is the Cowboy Junkies-esque â€œJames.â€
My Maudlin Career makes less of an impact than Letâ€™s Get Out of This Country did â€“ but suffering in comparison with such a great album hardly diminishes the new work. Itâ€™s likely to consolidate the audience Camera Obscura gained three years ago, and perhaps even draw some new fans. Still, weâ€™ll have to wait until next time to see whether the band has another great leap forward yet to come.