Camera Obscura – Desire Lines
There’s something about certain pieces of clothing. I wear Dunlop volleys EVERYWHERE, sockless, and when I slip them on in the morning the fit so snugly the overwhelming feeling of comfort is beautiful. The same can be said of my favourite pair of jeans, and my track pants. You slip these items on and they instantly lift your mood. They feel right.
Rarely do I feel this way with music. Normally I’ll have to feel my way around a release, push through the first few listens, really focus on all the elements of each song and what their individual voices are trying to achieve. Desire Lines, however, is comfort at first contact. Camera Obscura can do this to you. They have form. Let’s Get Out Of This Country started similarly, with the absolutely brilliant “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken”, the catchiest indie pop song I’d ever heard and one that instantly created this lovely aura around lead singer Campbell. It wasn’t something I truly experienced again until I heard Bloom by Beach House, and then “Thinkin’ Bout You” by Frank Ocean.
The wonderful thing about this band is an endurance that is built on the simple formula of blending beautiful, upbeat pop rhythms with the innocent and naive experiences of lead singer Campbell. If you’ve followed this band since 1996 you’ve grown alongside them, and although Camera Obscura in 2013 sounds a lot like they always have, this serves only as a testament to the strength of the sound they’re putting out there. The subject matter is malleable, and Campbell’s luscious, enticing voice is equally capable in front of a longing ballad such as “Pen and Notebook” as well as a heart starting pop gem like “Honey In The Sun”, a track that showcases the strength of her voice and the dexterity of the band as they incorporate strong Southern influences reminiscent of My Morning Jacket.
Desire Lines just fits so damn snugly. Sometimes, especially when dealing with indie pop, this can come across as a bit too cutesy. The gleam wears off; it’s like eating salmon for 3 or 4 days straight. Perfectly cooked salmon is heavenly, you bite in to it and exclaim because the texture is so soft and the flavours so light and airy. But after 4 days you go insane, fish madness, and start craving 2 kilos of undercooked rump steak to gorge on. It doesn’t satisfy. It’s a problem I found with Jacco Gardner’s album Cabinet of Curiosities. Great for 2 weeks, haven’t touched it since.
What I am trying to explain in a round-about way is that Camera Obscura are quite the genius’. Desire Lines may not feel substantial, but it is, in the same way all their records have been. The second track, “This Is Love (Feels Alright)” is wonderful, is literally a slap in the face. A simple percussion is propelled by that enticing Oboe-like instrument providing the riff, as Campbell, straight out of the blocks, exclaims ‘When I found your girlfriend crying / I could’ve slapped you in the face’. Already the substance reveals itself, this isn’t an exercise in cutesy indie pop the same way Belle and Sebastian ply their trade. This is more like the xx or The Tallest Man On Earth. There’s weight behind this.
In contrast to My Maudlin Career, Obscura tone the strings down and bring repetitive, catchy guitar riffs to the fore, backed by a well-versed and strong keyboard section and excellent percussion that wonderfully provides the pop focus. On “Troublemaker” a shaker is even employed during the chorus for emphasis as Campbell details another failed attempt at romance. There’s more focus on a reverb effect to enhance the message the guitars are trying to enforce. On “Do It Again” this creates a dirtier sound that contrasts nicely with sweetly sung Campbell, and complements her empowered command of ‘Let’s do it again’, ‘can you see tears on this clown? I said one more time around’. There’s no naivety here.
This is a theme with Campbell that can be maddening as well as interesting. 5 albums in and you’d think she’d have a handle on her romantic life, but it appears to remain as it always has, tinged with sadness. She has the ability to pull you in to her corner even when you sense she is aiming the bar too high, her standards are unattainable. Like the lost girl who cries on Tumblr every night about being alone, and yet has a 100 point checklist that all men must tick off before she’d even consider dating them. “Fifth In Line to the Throne” shows off her would be maddening insecurities, “you treat me like a Queen but like a Queen I don’t know when I’ll be slain” behind a common theme of melancholic slide guitar and simple-as-salt bass line. Such paranoia can get you committed, but rather it’s slightly endearing. You still want to kick her in the head for such negativity but we all see ourselves in that scared line.
The substance remains, though. You feel like a confidante, a friend, a lover and a therapist all rolled in to one listening to this record. “Every Weekday” is a lovely track that instantly uplifts your mood, and Campbell crafts some beautifully positive words about a close friend, “In my head you're nineteen going on ninety nine / You are Saturday and Sunday”, a lovely romp that sees those slide guitars plucked with much more vigour to brush off the Monday melancholic haze. She even apologises to us, on “I Missed Your Party”, yet manages to achieve forgiveness with the pure sincerity she conjures. A strong horn section and rising strings also help, they act as the cup of hot chocolate and big chunky choc chip cookie your best friend gives you when they have bad news to deliver.
Underlying the whole project is a sonic development that comes slightly out of left field. Jim James was reeled in to provide vocals on some of the tracks, and despite his limited involvement you can clearly hear aspects of My Morning Jacket, notably through those country slide guitar and highly plucked, twangy riffs like on Every Weekday and Desire Lines, which could pass for a country croon along, complete and resplendent with mournful organ touches. My Maudlin Career especially, as well as their previous work, utilised strings in such a way as to create lush, upbeat melodies that turned records in to events, gave the sound a stadium-like quality with a wall of sound posing behind the band. Now strings are used sparingly, and to punctuate emotion rather than create it. “Cri Du Coeur” is a delicate track that benefits greatly from this technique, as it winds down strings drift in as if through an open window on a hazy Sunday to almost lull you to sleep, providing a soft downy cushion to rest your worried mind on.
8/10. Boldly going where they’ve gone before, the result is nonetheless dynamic and enjoyable. More than just enjoyable really, it’s downright good. It’s a record for all seasons. You can be driving along the NSW coast on a perfect summers day, relaxing with it, or sitting alone in your room on a cold and raining winters night with a broken heart and a hot mug of tea and it will deliver with similar impact. Not many bands can do that.
Best Tracks: This Is Love (Feels Alright), Every Weekday, Desire Lines