At this point it feels worthless to compare Camera Obscura to Belle and Sebastian. The two Scottish troupes have been paired together ad nauseum for the better part of the last decade, with fans and critics alike pointing out their similar brands of moody chamber-twee. In these instances, CO typically plays little brother to the more popular, more critically acclaimed B&S. With their fifth LP, Desire Lines, Tracyanne Campbell & co. prove, yet again, that they shouldn’t have to play second fiddle to any band. The record completes a trifecta of truly fantastic releases that began with 2006’s Let’s Get Out Of This Country and continued on 2009’s My Maudlin Career.
Here, Campbell has never sounded more confident, but it’s confidence in pulling the sappy loser card time and time again. On the lead single and the album’s bubbliest track, “Do It Again”, Campbell is in heat. She doesn’t leave much up to the imagination in terms of what the “it” is, singing: “You were insatiable/ I was more than capable/ Turn down the lights now/ let’s do it again.” But when the bridge rolls around, she asks “Can you see the tears on this clown?” She doesn’t care that he broke her heart; sometimes, heated passion speaks louder than logic. It’s undoubtedly more cheerful than when she once “drowned my sorrows and slept around,” but the bittersweet edges that have become Campbell’s signature are still easy to appreciate.
The boot-knocking glee of “Do It Again” is sharply juxtaposed by another standout, “I Missed Your Party”, in which Campbell literally lists things she plans on doing instead of going to a friend’s get-together, singing: “I’ll listen to Billy Joel/ I’ll watch Flashdance again/ I’m gonna get through Walt Whitman/ I’m gonna be in bed by 10.” You can practically see her sitting there in sweatpants with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Her guiltless croon makes life’s little pleasures all the more endearing, and it’s easy to see how they landed an opening gig with a band like She and Him. Every line of “I Missed Your Party” could have just as easily been delivered by Zooey Deschanel’s character on New Girl.
Desire isn’t a gigantic a departure from My Maudlin Career, despite the fact that it took over four years to see the light of day. Delays in the form of, according to a press release, “sickness, sadness, life, etc” (isn’t that the most apropos excuse possible from this band?) halted production repeatedly. Though you wouldn’t know it from listening to tracks like “William’s Heart”, which glows with a rich production quality as Campbell unpacks a tale of a character doomed “to die in the arms of a 20 year old.” Similarly, the flickering guitar line that buoys the Americana-flavored title track feels like a warm blanket. It’s a perfect closing song that wouldn’t sound out of place on any of the last three Wilco records. Camera Obscura have come into their own in the studio and Desire Lines is arguably one of the best sounding records of the year.
Neko Case and Jim James joined the band in Portland, OR where they recorded the album, though they’re easy to miss here. The fact that they’re not prominently featured is not a detriment, however, simply because Campbell herself is so captivating. She doesn’t need anyone to prop her up in the first place; she’s perfectly at home being front and center. Her wit has never been sharper, and lines about how it’s her “New Year’s Resolution to write something of value” or trigger-happy lovers who “had the office before [he] had the business” are enough to stop you in your tracks and smile.
With little (if anything) to fret about, Desire Lines is as breathtaking as its inviting. They’ve honed their brutally honest and quirky take on heartbreak into something they can now wield with delightful precision. Stuart Murdoch should be jealous.
Essential Tracks: “Do It Again,” “New Year’s Resolution,” “I Missed Your Party”