Camera Obscura

Jul 01, 2006 Summer 2006 - The Dears
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If you’re in a Scottish band and the gray, miserable weather of Glasgow in late Fall bums you out, there are few options for feeling better. If you’re Stuart Murdoch, you fill notebooks with stories of funny little frogs and goateed baseball catchers until the sun comes out again. If you’re Mogwai, you turn your amps up until your ears bleed and you can’t feel much of anything.

But if you’re Tracyanne Campbell of sweet-tempered sweater-rockers Camera Obscura, you simply skip town to make a record in Sweden.

“I got bored with Glasgow a few years ago,” she says from her home in the Scottish city, where she’s been tying up loose ends preparing for the release of her band’s spry and delightful new album Let’s Get Out of This Country. “People always ask me why I wanted to get away. Everyone thinks it’s just so amazing.”

The album’s title is awfully apropos given the way that Campbell and her five bandmates have been both writing and thinking since their last full-length, 2003’s Underachievers, Please Try Harder. There’s a palpable restlessness to the new record that’s obvious twelve seconds into the first song, “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken.” A simple, classy organ riff gives way to a joyful crash of guitars and a buoyant string section. For a band whose songs about teenagers going bowling made Belle & Sebastian sound edgy, “Lloyd” is downright loud.

A bit of this can be attributed to producer Jari Haapalainen, who has recorded The Concretes and The (International) Noise Conspiracy. Country was the band’s first stab at working with an outside producer and finishing a record in a single sitting. His hands-on approach is evidenced in the ornate yet airtight arrangements, but the unexpected vigor of tracks like “If Looks Could Kill” and “Let’s Get Out of This Country” comes mostly from Campbell finally overcoming her frustration at both her surroundings and her own songwriting.

“It’s a lot braver and bolder than anything we’ve done before,” she says. “This record was about changing your environment and being dissatisfied with your situation.”

Campbell’s environment this time around was Stockholm, a not-exactly-warmer locale that gave the band just enough space from their home lives to really discipline themselves in the studio. There were some lovely walks in the woods and nights on the town, but given the gentleness of the band’s demeanor, recording was a fairly regimented process, starting at 7 a.m. and continuing until 2 a.m. for the better part of two weeks. But after releasing two full-lengths recorded intermittently in their hometown, a new locale was just what they needed to start, ahem, trying harder.

“It was amazing to get up in the morning and know you were only going to work on songs,” says Campbell. “There were no gaps or messing about.”

That work ethic gave them a record that still sounds like Camera Obscura, just with more of everything. The group—which includes keyboardist Carey Lander, guitarist Kenny McKeeve, bassist Gavin Dunbar, drummer Lee Thomson, and trumpeter Nigel Baillie—have long been pegged alongside their Glasgow peers as impeccably sweet and harmless lo-fi pop group. Their 2002 debut Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi and Underachievers didn’t do much to dispel that image, what with the berets and vintage teddy bears on the album covers and all. The songs were smaller, no less intelligent or emotionally realized, but not very insistent or demanding.

Even early tunes like “Eighties Fan” (“You say your life will be the death of you”) hinted at a wit and complexity that the band is just now fully realizing. Campbell’s always had a bit of a self-loathing streak in her lyrics, and that very European self-deprecation is strung throughout Country. On the title track, her plea to “find a cathedral city/you can convince me I am pretty,” is charming in the way she enunciates “pretty” to make the syllables sound like two separate words. The melody is airy and willowy, and like on much of Country, her voice is treated with just enough analog haze to make it sound like she’s singing in a car with the windows down. It’s an unexpectedly sad and cutting lyric, one that lends a welcome but unnervingly sour note in an otherwise optimistic road trip tune. Later on the album, in the middle of chastising someone for playing head games with a prospective love, she admits, “I’m not saying I’m free from blame/because I need all the friends I can get.” It’s a classic pop move—using the lightest of melodic and lyrical touches while sneaking in a surprisingly heavy emotional observation.

“That’s part of my personality, I can’t stand myself sometimes,” says Campbell. “I have doubts about my ability to be a good friend, my abilities as a songwriter. I’m quite hard on myself.”

Having a sometimes-brutal sense of your own faults isn’t unusual for a songwriter, and it’s often an asset that can lead to cathartic music that exorcises some sort of angst. But if Campbell is still a bit unsure of herself as an artist, you wouldn’t know it from Country’s upbeat cohesiveness. In fact, it might be the band’s “happiest” sounding record to date. Compared to the lively bounce and vigorous production of Country, the band’s older albums feel somewhat muted and monochromatic. That doesn’t mean that the album is a one-note joyride. In the same way that Campbell can make lyrical room for both deep insecurities and love songs to Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Country tastefully segues from rockers to simmering ballads like “Country Mile” without sounding forced or affected.

“I think it’s a bit more mature; we’re not singing about being suspended from class,” Campbell says. She was adamant about making a pop record, and Country dips and swells in the ways that her band’s reference points like The Shirelles or Love did. It takes ten singles about the little tics in relationships and adds them up to a nuanced, exuberant portrait of love. Though Campbell admits to being frustrated by her own self-doubt and the difficulties of getting a six-piece band on the road, now that she’s back home with a great new record, Campbell’s starting to come around to her own country again.

“The last thing I was prepared to do was to go back to Glasgow to do this record,” she says. “But now that it’s spring and the weather is getting better, I think I’m getting back into it.”



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