Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career

4AD, 2009
[rating:6.5/10]

Camera Obscura has proven longevity. Having formed in 1996, they reached a critical highpoint with the enchantment and heartache of 2006’s Let’s Get Out Of This Country. While their latest album, My Maudlin Career demonstrates maturity, its uneven presentation may upset some fans.

The album kicks off with “French Navy”, a great example of the Camera Obscura style—bright lyrics, strings and brass (expertly arranged by Bjorn Yttling), pop, and a simplistic, repetitive two-line chorus. “French Navy” is a catchy, fun trifle of a song that has the biting sarcasm of Tracyanne Campbell’s pen: “You with your dietary restrictions/ Said you loved me with a lot of conviction.”

What should have been exciting guest stints of backing vocals by the distinctive Nicolai Dunger and Swedish pop newcomer Britta Persson are lost on their respective songs. Dunger, in particular, sounds generic and too hushed in the mastering.

The duds on the album, an unoriginal, schoolgirl-naïve “You Told a Lie” and the annoying “Away with Murder” detract—yet, it is possible to respect Campbell’s inclusion of some down tempo songs. The opening notes off of ABBA’s grand piano in the title track are a fun treat, but can’t save the title track from being bogged down by its subject matter.

“Swans” might have been a gem with a riff that the band had apparently been playing in an incongruous form for a time, but its lyrical Gertrude Stein-esque pause on deer seems strange. “James” strongly resembles a track off of Leona Naess’s album “Comatised” from a decade or so ago. It’s sad and mopey; something Rob would have loved in High Fidelity.

By the last track, the listener may be thankful for “Honey in the Sun”- a brassy and sunny song in instrumentation only. It, like many of the tracks, is about the pain of distance from someone you love, but, here, the contrast is lovely and the figurative “you got me pouring myself all over this page” is self-aware. Campbell notes regarding this song a fondness for Van Morrison; Dunger should have been trotted out for his voice, which so frequently resembles Morrison’s.

The recording of the album in Sweden may have contributed to the overall mood of the album. In the past, Camera Obscura has been compared to Belle & Sebastian ad nauseum, but this veers from that to a kind of Laurel Canyon languidness. Whether this is a transitional record or not, future albums will tell.