Sunday, June 9, 2013

Camera Obscura's "Desire Lines" is Here, Everybody Else Go Home

Recently, Grantland's Steven Hyden wrote an article about lead singers, incorporating the site's incessant need to analyze pop culture through power rankings in order to rank various lead singers in active bands.  I don't have the time or desire to dissect the arbitrary criteria of that article, but if there's a conversation about the best lead singers in the business, then Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell deserves to be in the discussion.  There's a reason why she's the focus of almost every one of the band's pictures, because it's easy to associate Camera Obscura's wistful aesthetic with its blue-eyed and glum lead singer.

Since John Henderson's departure from the band after their second album, Underachievers Please Try Harder, Campbell has taken on full vocal and lyrical duties and the band definitely feels like it has more of a singular vision.  She may have an outwardly meek presence, but her vocals are magnetic and the songs on Desire Lines, the band's fifth album, coil around each of her carefully phrased sentences.  Campbell has the uncanny ability of knowing when to elongate a word or add extra emotion to a certain syllable.  In lieu of a review, I could almost just sit you down and force you to listen to the album, interrupting every few lines to say "I mean are you kidding me?!" after every interesting line delivery.  From the aching "Oh I could bottle up this love" on the title track, the dip in the second verse of "I Missed Your Party," and the way she breathlessly crams extra words into the end of the chorus on "Every Weekday," each vocal flourish keeps the listener and the songs on their feet.  It's these choices that elevate her past the rest of the crop of indie pop vocalists.  While it may be clean, simple and sweet, Tracyanne Campbell's voice manages to display a complex emotional range.

Lyrically, Campbell has always been quite underrated as well.  Each song has a nostalgic internalized feel to them, simultaneously reminding you of your warmest comforts and greatest pains.  Camera Obscura albums have always been full of heartbreak, so perhaps that's why Campbell sings about love with a hardened guardedness ("I've been cool with you...", Campbell admits on "New Year's Resolution").  Underneath that shell, though, lies the beating heart of a romantic.  "This is Love (Feels Alright)," "Every Weekday," and "Desire Lines" are all about cracking the ice and wholeheartedly embracing the warmth of love.  Some songs also have the band's signature sarcastic wit, like "I Missed Your Party," which sounds like a begrudging apology.  Desire Lines features many shades of emotion, and they all bleed with the same intensity.  As introspective as her lyrics may be, Tracyanne Campbell has always shown keen perceptiveness towards others, and the swooning slab of melancholy on "William's Heart" makes it one of the stronger songs on the album.

Campbell may get the most attention, but the rest of the members of the band are no slouches either, and they're as strong as ever on Desire Lines.  Even back in their breezier Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi days, they were always a band that kept things pretty tight, but their bigger sound emphasizes their dynamics even more.  They don't get enough credit for the way their clean and inventive guitar textures, buoyant synths, and stable low-end seem to smear together and sound just right.  Desire Lines is not as much of a leap forward as the wall of sound introduced on Let's Get Out of This Country or the cinematic pop of My Maudlin Career, but the band still finds some ways stretch their limbs.  Many of the strongest songs come from them tossing something new into the equation, from the Caribbean bop of "Every Weekday" to the full-on cabaret horns on "I Missed Your Party."  "Do It Again" even introduces a bit of disco and pulls it off successfully.  The more familiar songs are just as good too.  "New Year's Resolution," with its bright guitar squeal and cooing chorus, sounds like vintage Camera Obscura, but even more expansive.  Slow songs are still a strong point for the band -- when given the chance to breathe, they sigh accordingly, like on the torch song "This is Love (Feels Alright)."  Not to mention the veritably named "Cri Du Couer," which is a literal cry of passion with its swirling chorus, moody atmospheric synths, and loping rhythm.

Whenever Camera Obscura releases an album, it usually gets good reviews, but they're never glowing.  You certainly won't see them on many end of the year lists when December rolls around either.  It seems as if they're forever going to be that band that's being overlooked and underrated.  That's quite a shame too, because they've been making music for over a decade now and haven't had a single misstep.  After that long of a time together, many bands spoil like milk, but Camera Obscura have only gotten finer with age, like wine. This may be the best effort from a band who's already produced some of my favorite albums of all time.  It's rare that I'll listen to an album more than once a day, but I found myself dropping other things just to listen to this again.  Although the year may only be halfway over, I doubt that any album will come along and be as wonderful and delightful as Desire Lines is.

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