Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Review: Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career (* * * 1/2)

Starting when I was about about eight or nine years old, my love of music was directed with fervor at our local oldies station, playing the best of all those feel-good, sugar-coated songs that I played repeatedly to the point of my parent’s exhaustion. Though I’ve come a long way since then, I’ve never really gotten over my love of pop music’s simple pleasures. As a result, it’s almost impossible for me to dislike throwback albums like My Maudlin Career, the fourth effort from one of Glasgow’s most beloved indie rock bands, Camera Obscura. Though the album is somewhat inconsistent, the infectious mix of jangly guitars, ornamental string arrangements, and sappy lyrics channel the feeling of classic 50’s pop and make for some genuinely charming and pleasant moments.

At their most inspired on My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura remain as quirky and compelling as they’ve always been. First single and opener “French Navy” bursts from the speakers with a delightfully sunny drum stomp before transitioning into a smooth, jazzy Indie tune. Following is the similarly excellent “The Sweetest Thing,” complete with a fantastic Beach Boys-esque vocal intro and joyous strings for the perfect touch. Both songs are packed with hooks and are so much fun you can forgive lyrics like the regrettably cheesy “You make me go ooh-ooh with the things that you do,” though later on the record, similar lines start to grate a bit. There are several other highlights scattered throughout the disc, but perhaps the best track on the record appears right at the end. The energetic, horny-heavy “Honey in the Sun” kicks things back into high gear for a final blast of lovely pop goodness that might make you wonder if Camera Obscura decided to literally save the best for last.

Between the strong start and finish, however, the results are less even. “James” is enjoyably lonely and “Forest and Sands” adds a nice bit of twang to shake things up slightly, but many of the songs can’t fulfill the promise of the first couple tracks. “Away with Murder” takes the generally sad lyrics into uncomfortably depressing territory, while “Careless Love” slows the tempo into an unnecessarily drippy ballad devoid of any real energy or emotion. The production continues to be exceptional and the band sharp with their delivery, but Campbell’s songwriting becomes distracting after more than a few listens. You might wish she’d stop simply hoping to be happy as she sings “I don’t want to be sad again” and just lighten up a bit, as too often her heavy dose of despair wrapped in sunny melodies feels heavy and tired when the arrangements could be used more often to express a less bleak sentiment.

Still, it’s difficult to deny the expertise with which Camera Obscura navigate their way through familiar pop territory while providing a welcome update on the classic genre. The occasionally overstuffed presentation is consistently fun and when the mood is less mopey, Campbell creates some exceptional tunes. My Maudlin Career doesn’t hit the spot like Let’s Get Out of This Country, but while the new record isn’t a complete success, it certainly can’t be considered a failure either.

Last Word: My Maudlin Career contains a few of Camera Obscura’s best tunes but is ultimately hampered by too much uninspired and dreary songwriting.