Review Summary: Mom-rock.
It’s hard to find something bad to say about Camera Obscura. The worst I can think of is that they are perhaps doomed to live in the critical shadow of their countrymen Belle & Sebastian in the world of “twee-as-fu
ck” indie pop, but even that is a recital that has long grown tired and dusty. 2009’s My Maudlin Career
stood proudly on its own: those jangly harmonies, that sweeping wall-of-sound production, and a very elegant pop style that was far richer than most of its contemporaries. Camera Obscura’s trump card has always been Tracyanne Campbell’s voice, at times hopelessly romantic, at others despondent and despairing. No one can drag out a syllable as heartrendingly awkward and ambiguously as Campbell; the tension between Campbell, always the girl left without a dance when the music starts, and the band’s prismatic instrumentation is what made fleeting love on “French Navy” so memorable and the red-eyed hymnal of “Forest and Sands” so affecting. Camera Obscura have always been set in their ways, so Desire Lines
, despite coming out after four years of turmoil and personal troubles within the band itself, really sounds about as much as you’d expect it to. Whether it was “sickness, sadness, life etc.,” as a press release notes, or simply the natural growth of a band that has never really bothered to rock the boat too much, Desire Lines
remains firmly entrenched in the band’s well-worn sonic aesthetic. It’s a comforting familiarity that breeds not so much contempt as it does a sort of ambivalence.
As with all Camera Obscura records, Desire Lines
is a meticulously crafted, steady collection of indie pop, the kind of layered production that leads you to appreciate it more upon subsequent listens. The distant horns of “I Missed Your Party” or the delicate string work on “Cri Du Coeur” unfold gradually, the gorgeous harmonies even more so – when things move as languidly as they do on Desire Lines
, it’s the subtleties that eventually transform the record. Where prior records had peaks and valleys, the occasional fever pitch and the kind of acidic, prickly sadness that Campbell does so well, Desire Lines
opens with a softly swelling string piece and seldom deviates from a polite midtempo pace for the rest of the trip. It’s an emotional flatline that seems to tease with a spark here or there – the playful ‘60s dance of “Troublemaker,” or the cheeky wink that drives the jittery guitar in “Do It Again” – but more often than not is perfectly content to float on, lackadaisical and unhurried. This isn’t a problem on an individual level, where the serenity of some of the songs make them master classes in restraint, the value of a well-plucked string tremolo or the simple power of a flawless harmony. Take “Cri Du Coeur,” a vintage Campbell performance, tearful strain and all, married to a lushly orchestrated surge of strings and that essential fingerpicked motif. It’s over the course of Desire Lines
that things start to drag, where the beauty becomes commonplace and Campbell’s self-flagellating vocals become predictable.
Campbell remains eminently captivating, as easy to listen to lust for an irresponsible night in the sheets as she is pining for a night alone with herself, listing all the things she’d rather be doing than dealing with men. Hers is a singular voice, one that takes the empty weight of all those instruments, the hollow melodrama and vast chambers of their production and gives it some emotional heft and a naked empathy that is impossible to ignore – and who would want to" Yet even Campbell can’t save Desire Lines
from coming off as creatively stagnant, just as pretty as ever but overwhelmingly pedestrian. I miss the temporary rush of “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken,” the sort of love and music that burns quick and hot, or the irresistible self-loathing of “The Sweetest Thing,” that inevitability crashing down on everything. Campbell may be on board, as she is on “Break It To You Gently” or the woozy “New Year’s Resolution,” but it’s hard to feel a storm in such well-insulated surroundings. You wish Camera Obscura would take some of that carefully constructed nuance and lend a little chaotic balance to things, but this is all pleasant and gracious, smooth and ultimately tasteless. Perish the thought of rocking the boat – Desire Lines
is far too cordial for anything of the sort.