Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Album of the Week: Camera Obscura's "My Maudlin Career"

First of all, ignore the time/date stamp on this one. Yes, I'm late. Almost a whole week late. This is what you get when the CB editor-in-chief receives absolutely no financial renumeration for doing his duty in a timely manner. Whatever.

Second, Camera Obscura's new album, My Maudlin Career, is a perfect pop album. I don't throw words like "perfect" around very easily, so when I use it here, rest assured that I mean it. The only other recent release I can think of that comes close to the level of this album is the self-titled Pains Of Being Pure At Heart release, and while I love the JAMC-esque fuzz of that one, the lyrical excellence of My Maudlin Career keeps it in front by a significant margin.

This album has received a lot of buzz here in Clevo because of the shout-out the city receives in track two, "The Sweetest Thing." I've spent a lot of time thinking about that lyric, and I've come to the conclusion that there is a good chance it is about me. Seriously, think about it. As she concludes the second verse, Tracyanne Campbell sings "You pull my heart out then you run away/From Chicago to Cleveland you make me pay/You make me pay."

See, not only is Campbell mentioning Cleveland, but she is saying that Cleveland is where the pain stopped. Listening to the rest of the song, it is quite clear that the pain didn't stop because there was a Northeast Ohio reunion. Clearly, the pair didn't get back together. Instead, something happened to make her stop feeling so bad, and given the depths of the pain, the only thing it could have possibly been is a serious new crush. A very serious one.

Now, I'm certainly not the only dude in Cleveland she could've gotten a crush on, but seriously, if Tracyanne came to town and fell head over heels for somebody here, don't you think that would've been the hottest indie rock gossip in town? EVERYONE would know about it. Unless, of course, there was a conspiracy to keep the information from you. And the only one there could possibly be such a conspiracy against was the person who was the subject of the new crush. It wouldn't make sense to keep the information away from anyone else. And, thus, since I have never heard a single thing that would make me think Tracyanne has a crush on me, it MUST be me. You follow the logic, right?

Well, maybe this isn't the only interpretation to that lyric, but it is a reasonable hypothesis, isn't it? No? OK, nevermind. I've never actually seen Camera Obscura live, and probably didn't even live here yet the last time they came through, so I guess the CB crush explanation doesn't hold that much water. Feel free to submit your own interpretations of the Cleveland shout-out, though. Maybe we can have a contest.

Anyway, while that Cleveland reference and the entire album's sugary pop sounds are what initially endeared it to me, repeated listens revealed lyrical brilliance. I really can't decide which of the numerous lines on the album are my favorite, but here are a selection of the most choice. Maybe you can decide.

"French Navy" starts of the album with some wonderful lines - "Spent a week in a dusty library/waiting for some words to jump at me" AND "You and your dietary restriction/Said you loved me with a lot of conviction" - and the track as a whole is a great pop song, perfectly sweet and summery. I love the strings during the chorus and the samba pauses during the final verse.

The the whole first verse (indeed, the entire song) of "The Sweetest Thing" is great: I'm going on a date tonight/To try to fall out of love with you/I know, I know this is a crime/ But I don't know what else to do.

The Euro-pop meets 70s Nashville twang third track, "You Told A Lie," has a great refrain - Are my eyes the coldest blue/You said once this was true/If it is I don't know what I'll do - while the ballad "Away With Murder" has the following couplet: To get away maybe I could sell kisses/In Portland I tried my pretty hand at fishing.

"Swans" contains another great couplet - No surprises in the record collection/You must have thought I was someone else - and one of the three best moments on the album (in addition to the aforementioned Cleveland shout-out and the "Honey" at the beginning of Track Seven.): when Campbell croons the words "fantastic idea" to the song's subject's notion that he might want to be a writer.

"James" is another ballad that, for whatever strange reason, makes me think of the scene in High Fidelity where John Cusack and Lisa Bonet are having that conversation about the terrible moment when exes come by to take their stuff back and Bonet says that her ex's name is James. I like to imagine this song as the one Bonet might've played just before Rob Gordon walked in to the strains of her Frampton cover. Or maybe the A-side to the single where the Frampton cover was the ironic b-side choice.

The album's title track is also noteworthy, as much because of the lazy, fluid enunciation on the song that is at odds with the crispness of most of the rest of the songs as because of the opening lyrics: You kissed me on the forehead/Now these kisses give me concussions/We were love at first sight/Now this crush, it's crushing. The song itself is a poignant portrayal of a relationship in crisis and probably already doomed because the problem is closeness itself and the other party is so afraid to lose the narrator that they won't back up, won't relinquish control or attempts to control, which in the end will result in the very thing they were afraid of in the first place: serious dumpage. We've all been in this type of relationship, on at least one side and probably both, if we are honest with ourselves. Listening to this song simultaneously makes me shudder, reminisce, and celebrate my principled plan of singleness until at least 2010. Lyrically, "My Maudlin Career" might well be the strongest of the entire album - a tremendous accomplishment, as it also includes couplets like "Your pain's gigantic but not as big as your ego/Promise not to abandon you/please let me go" AND "You say I'm too kind and sentimental/Like you could catch affection."

The rest of the album proceeds nicely and blissfully, with "Forests & Sands" (lyric alert: I'm in a van, and you're holding my hand) and the ballad "Other Towns & Cities" before giving way to the most rousing song on the entire album, the closer "Honey In The Sun." The entire second verse of this song is brilliant, and the great jazz combo riff in the tune's fourth minute makes me want to dance.

All in all, this album is a multi-faceted, thoughtful approach to the highs and lows of modern love. There is a wonderfully subtle sense of humor constantly at work in the lyrics, and a ton of nuance. Not only does Camera Obscura perform songs about the good and bad in romance, they talk about the ambivalence - the down sides of good things and the joy in the bad. As I said at the outset of this review, this is a perfect indie pop album. If one could dare to request improvement on perfection, I'd have loved to heard a longer guitar jam in either "Swans" or "Honey In The Sun." But asking for anything other than the awesomeness we've received here would be discourteous and unappreciative, so I won't.

I will, however, impetuously suggest you make plans to acquire a copy of this album post haste, as it receives the highest mark on the Cleveland Bachelor record review scale, the incomparable "Get your ass to the fucking record store immediately and buy this shit before the Smithsonian requisitions all copies as cultural artifacts of awesomeness" score. It is also the mid-year front-runner for Album of the Year, if that gives you any idea how much the folks at CB HQ dig this one. I'm exceedingly confident you will dig it quite a lot, too.

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