Camera Obscura, ‘Desire Lines’ (4AD)
Release Date: June 4, 2013
The song that might tell you the most about Camera Obscura isn’t a Camera Obscura song at all: Tracyanne Campbell, the Glasgow band’s frontwoman, wrote “Lost and Found,” which wound up on Swedish contemporary Victoria Bergsman’s 2007 debut as Taken by Trees. Understated, ambivalent, and naggingly familiar, it’s kitchen-sink folk-pop that illuminates how at ease Campbell is with heartache, and how identifiable her sound can be regardless of who’s singing.
Belle and Sebastian comparisons are so common for Camera Obscura that they’re almost a meme: Both are Scottish indie bands featuring wry storytelling, an intuitive grasp of ’60s AM-radio tropes, and a career arc that’s gone from shambling to crowd-pleasing. But Bergsman, formerly of the Concretes, is a more instructive parallel. Taken by Trees succeeds by spiriting her unmistakable coo to far-flung settings, geographically and musically. Camera Obscura have recorded in different countries, too; their lineup has shifted in a similar way. But five albums in, they sound more like themselves than ever. They know their context, and they’ve distilled what they do into a form potent enough to resonate beyond it.
Desire Lines shares its title with a song by labelmates Deerhunter and an album by breezy groove-mongers Meanderthals. But let’s go with the phrase’s Wikipedia meaning: the paths our feet naturally choose, marked by wear rather than signs. Producer Tucker Martine tended the warm live-band glow of My Morning Jacket’s album about “goin’ nowhere” and finding themselves “right back in the same place that we started out” — 2011’s Circuital — and Camera Obscura have undertaken their own version of that same journey. Heading off to Portland, Oregon, they discovered that, for all their increasingly accomplished, autumnal yearning, it was as close to home as anyplace.
Campbell still sings about the trivial, really important stuff: everyday miscommunication and its attendant emotional pangs. With lightly twanging guitar fills and well-placed flourishes of percussion — alongside her pealing, expressive vocals and a balance between uptempo stompers and smoldering ballads — Desire Lines sits with remarkable ease next to Camera Obscura albums released a decade ago. And it’s perversely inspired the way Desire Lines recruits two of indie-leaning rock’s most haunting singers, Neko Case and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, only to hide them away on honeyed backing harmonies, like another burnished trumpet or foggy keyboard. (Then again, Bergman’s own guest-star vocals two albums ago were just as seamless.)
Camera Obscura’s more overtly cutesy lyrical or orchestral touches are mostly pared back here, but in a way that gets closer to the group’s essence rather than blunts it. The songwriter who once apologized for “making a pass” now unabashedly proposes to “Do It Again”; after the TV is turned off late one night, her “Troublemaker” narrator can’t stop fretting. (Still, she repeats evocatively, “I knew what you were talking about.”) Pop-culture references persist, but they’re broader and less precious: less Lloyd Cole, more Billy Joel and “Kokomo.” A simple phrase like “I’ll cry,” delivered with casual feeling, can be a country-tinged hook. The sprightly “Every Weekday” touchingly vows friendship. A band that was always honest and adult has only gotten better at both. The delay since 2009’s My Maudlin Career owes to longtime keyboardist Carey Lander’s cancer treatment; Campbell is now pregnant. “Never smooth sailing,” she told an interviewer. That’s the route Camera Obscura know best.