With their previous album, Let’s Get Out of this Country, Camera Obscura finally stepped out of the shadow of Belle & Sebastian (and the inevitable comparisons that came when Stuart Murdoch produced their very first single) to come into their own. Country delivered more than just the twee charm of its predecessors and displayed an impressive ear for consistent pop song-writing. The just-released My Maudlin Career continues the band’s evolution without straying far from the style that has already become familiar.
Vocalist/guitarist Tracyanne Campbell, who used to sing with such bored affectation on earlier songs like “Eighties Fan,” and “Suspended from Class,” sounds much more impassioned these days, but maintains her same breeziness. Nowhere is this change more evident than in the album’s lead single and opening track, the jubilant “French Navy,” which finds Campbell adding trills and flourishes to her normally stripped-down delivery. Elsewhere, as in slower songs like “James” and the country-tinged twang of “Forests and Sands,” she sounds tired, but the strain lends a layer of soulfulness.
My Maudlin Career is a shimmering, well-orchestrated album; tinkling bells are scattered throughout for a touch of magic, but never intrusive or schmaltzy. Strings swell to such show-stopping levels in nearly every song that, after a while, it’s a relief to hear only a lone, mournful fiddle lingering in the background of “Other Towns and Cities.” All the trappings we’ve come to expect from Camera Obscura are present: the Sunday school pianos, horns, and classic radio guitar riffs. To be sure, some moments on the album sound familiar. The title track reminded me of a slower, less raucous version of “If Looks Could Kill” from the last album, and “Honey in the Sun” echoed “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken,” but the band isn’t so much repeating itself as refining.
Some highlights: “Swans” opens with a delirious nursery-rhyme hook that threads through the song, “You Told a Lie,” navigates seamlessly between a sunny verse with a polka bass line and a hushed chorus punctuated by plucked violins. The previously-mentioned “French Navy” is pure pop heaven, easily my favorite song. But the artfulness of the album’s arrangements really get to shine in the closing track “Honey in the Sun;” the song takes off on instrumental breakdowns between verses, even after it seems that Campbell has urged the melody as far as it will go. Where Let’s Get Out of This Country ended with the ambient set piece “Razzle Dazzle Rose,” Career takes us out with a cheerful romp, a triumphant ending to an album about not wanting “to be sad again.”
Download “French Navy”
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I am definitely a skeptic. However, I do have one weird hang-up that prohibits me from listening to Belle & Sebastian while driving my car.
See, two of my three wrecks occurred while I was listening to Belle & Sebastian records: the first to If You’re Feeling Sinister, and the other to Dear Catastrophe Waitress.
Conditions of the superstition: it’s okay to listen to them in anybody else’s car, just not mine, and not as long as I’m the one driving. This embargo only applies to all albums released up to (and including) Dear Catastrophe Waitress, although I have noted that this does encompass the greater part of the B&S catalogue. The Life Pursuit, strangely enough, appears to be safe, as well as the recently-released BBC Sessions.
Even though I’ve found Belle & Sebastian’s music to be cursed (at least for the purposes of road trips), the records might have prevented the accidents from being far more serious. The wreck with If You’re Feeling Sinister as its soundtrack was a harmless fender-bender, not even a scratch on either car; the Dear Catastrophe Waitress incident was a little more severe as far as vehicles were concerned, but no one was hurt. The other wreck, by contrast, happened to Poe’s second album, Haunted, which I should have recognized as a bad omen. My car was totalled, and subsequently ate the CD.
I’d be interested to know if anyone else has any weird music-related superstitions or rituals.
Recently on Facebook, there has been a rash of users posting applications like “Albums that have shaped me,” or “Albums that have changed my life.” Now, I’ll start off by saying that lists and rankings such as the classic “Top Five Desert Island Albums” have always presented something of a challenge for me. Current top five? Can’t do it. My music-listening habits of the last four years have been so incredibly fractured that I’d be hard-pressed to make a cohesive list that reflects my current aesthetic. There’s one or two records I’ve listened to consistently (Frengers and And the Glass-Handed Kites, both by Danish band Mew), and a handful of records that I like in the most casual of ways (In Ear Park by Department of Eagles, TV on the Radio’s Dear Science, even a would-be fascination with Pinback’s Rob Crow and his various projects). But five solid choices? And what about top five of all time? Can’t do that either. There was a time in my life, say about six or seven years ago, when I was dead certain that there were four or six(never five!) perfect records (with staying power, no less) I could name on demand.
Because of the aforementioned difficulties, I actually find the “Albums that have shaped my life” to be a more comforting format for sharing my “top” records. It’s easier to talk about, to quantify. The albums either had a profound effect on me, or they didn’t — and that’s something that will never change. I will impose no limits on number. There will probably be more than five but less than ten. Who knows?
Criteria include 1) an album I can listen to in full, without skipping a track (or at least no more than two tracks), 2) an album that remained a favorite for a significant period of time, and 3) one that possibly changed the way I thought about music altogether.
So without further ado, and in no particular order (the numbers are a formality):
1. Either/Or by Elliott Smith
2. Under the Pink, Tori Amos
3. Post, Bjork
4. To Bring You My Love, PJ Harvey
5. One Part Lullaby, The Folk Implosion
6. III, Sebadoh
7. If You’re Feeling Sinister, Belle & Sebastian
This list is not at all surprising if you consider that they reflect my adolescent period, the time when we are all a little more sensitive to pop culture and absorbed the trends of the time, possibly internalizing them for life. I discovered all of these albums when I was between the ages of 13 and 19, years 1994-2000.
These choices don’t necessarily reflect current tastes; I almost never listen to Tori Amos anymore (unless I need something I can sing along with on a long drive), and although I still enjoy Bjork’s earlier albums, most of her work after Vespertine doesn’t interest me much. On the other hand, I am Lou Barlow’s girl always and forever. True, he has a 75-25% “unlistenable crap” to “brilliance” ratio, but I will always wade through the 75% of crap to get to the gems. Belle & Sebastian will always be welcome in my stereo and my iPod (although not in my car — more on that later!).
In the next few posts, I’ll explore a handful of these essential albums/artists and the subsequent obsessions they spawned in a more thorough fashion. Until then, toodles.