My Maudlin Career (4AD)
Tattooed in twee and unfairly compared to every Scottish group that went before them (most often fellow Glaswegians Belle & Sebastian), Camera Obscura once seemed destined never to find their own voice. With this, their fifth album, they appear to have finally shaken off the shackles of lazy comparisons that dogged their early career. In truth, the band’s basic approach has changed little since the days of ‘Eighties Fan’ (the hit track from their first album, 2001’s Biggest Bluest Hi Fi), when singer Tracyanne Campbell was the belle of the Bowlie ball. Her vocals are still as distinct, effortless and beautiful as ever and the band are reliably solid (but subtle) and chiming (but driving), their ‘ooh-oohs’ and ‘Be My Baby’ drum beats never overpowering the tear-in-a-beer country narratives. But Camera Obscura have now refined all that early promise into something bigger and slicker. No longer restricted by the modest ambition and budgets of the bedroom indie labels they grew up on, they have quietly matured into major league contenders. Now their albums are stocked in Tesco and they are endorsed by Paul Morley – which tells you more than the constant press release references to John Peel. What relevance Peel’s imprimatur has to seventeen year-old record buyers these days is a moot point, but significantly, while a host of bands who emerged around the same time as CO could claim the great DJ’s patronage, none of those ‘also-rans’ are still standing.
On the surface, My Maudlin Career offers no immediate departures. The trademark strings and big bold production of their last album, Let’s Get Out Of is Country, are still present and correct (as is producer Jari Haapalainen) but this doesn’t mean they haven’t developed. Lyrically this is an ambitious record and, despite the upbeat tone of most of the songs, a sly melancholia remains at the heart of everything they do. In fact it’s very easy to forget what a good songwriter Campbell is; perhaps if she were an ‘anorak’ indie-boy she would be recognised as such. These are love songs that make you dance as easily as they make you cry and come brimming with lines such as: “We turned the radiators on and there was no way back / Did you know you had the plough star trail on your back?” (‘Other Towns And Cities’). You have to wonder why the world is Guy Garvey mad while Tracyanne draws breath. Still, like (Garvey’s band) Elbow, CO have stuck it out and made their own luck. Perhaps these ‘underachievers’ won’t have to try quite so hard next time. Greatness awaits.