Review Summary: When you're lucid you're the sweetest thing / I would give my mother to hear you sing"
Camera Obscura are good at what they do. Fans of the band and even casual listeners can easily attest to this after the magnum opus that was 06’s Let’s Get Out Of This Country, where frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell and fellow Scots bandmates gave themselves over to Lloyd Cole and looked very much like the successors to Belle & Sebastian’s eminently catchy brand of twee-pop. It becomes clear right out of the gate that, with My Maudlin Career, their success has in no way put a damper on their talents – Campbell still has that slightly accented purr down pat, a sexy and sweet mix between Jenny Lewis and Victoria Bergsman, and the band’s orchestrated ‘60s pop/folk keeps chugging cheerfully along no matter how downcast Campbell sounds.
And make no mistake about it; My Maudlin Career is a darker record than Country, although you wouldn’t know it from the delightful opener and first single “French Navy.” Where countrymen Belle & Sebastian made their mark via clever turns of phrase and sly, smart lyrical conventions, Camera Obscura are romantics at heart, using a bouncy string-backed beat to frame convictions of love like “I was waiting to be struck by lightning / waiting for somebody exciting” before bursting into a four-on-the-floor chorus replete with arching, ascending strings as a yearning Campbell sings “I wanted to control it / but love, I couldn’t hold it.” It’s the catchiest, most straightforward song on the record, the band’s corollary to Country’s excellent “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken.” Obscura’s well-toned pop hooks are sunk even deeper on the following “The Sweetest Thing,” where the contrast between Campbell’s heartsick lyrics and the upbeat, sing-a-long chorus is highlighted and makes a deceptively simple song into a thing of tragic beauty.
The band pumps the brakes a bit on the following tunes, starting with the country-flavored question of “You Told A Lie” and continuing with the atmospheric melancholy balladry of “Away With Murder.” Campbell is alternately scathing and self-deprecating, asking “are my eyes the coldest blue?” and then singing worriedly “I don’t know what I’ll do / cause I’m stuck with them / and they’re stuck on you” on the former. “Away With Murder,” meanwhile, coats itself in layers of echoes and gentle acoustic accompaniment while Campbell bemoans “I’ve been lonely too, like you / I’m just like you” along a tale of hard touring.
While songs like the jangly pop of “Swans” and the elegant guitar-vocal interplay of closer “Honey In The Sun” prove that the band long ago knew how to craft a brilliant hook and that the production is generally spot-on, it’s songs like the understated “Away With Murder” and the powerful emotion of “James” that truly make My Maudlin Career shine. Camera Obscura are at their best when Campbell is using the full range of her vocals, evoking a variety of feelings while carrying the melody while the band’s arrangements take a back seat. Even when the lyrics don’t match the strength of the music, such as on the tear-in-your-beer country misery of “Forest and Sands,” it’s Campbell’s ability to carry a tune and connect that make up for any missteps.
Occasionally the band drop a dud that even Campbell can’t save, like the inadvisable faux-acapella of “Other Towns & Cities,” a sparse combo of dreamy guitar and reverb-soaked vocals that goes nowhere and stays there. And while songs like the title track, where Campbell croons “this maudlin career has come to an island / I don’t want to be sad again” might make one think she’s had enough of all this singing about heartbreak, it only takes one listen to the expertly crafted layers of “Honey In The Sun” and its bombastic, joyous horn section to put one at ease. Despite all of Campbell’s attempts to “become as cold as ice,” Camera Obscura is still a band reveling in the ability of bright, warm chamber-pop to dispel away the gloom.