Summary

Glaswegian group Camera Obscura have dialed in their approach to indie pop perfection over the course of their lengthy run, starting out as the kid brother band to their friends in Belle & Sebastian, but finding a voice all their own by the time of their 2006 high-watermark album Let's Get Out of This Country. The 2009 follow-up My Maudlin Career and now fifth album Desire Lines don't see Camera Obscura wildly altering their sound, but there's a certain development that comes from years of refining their increasingly cool and self-assured songs. Desire Lines was delayed by a two-year period of uncertainty for the band, where illness and other personal problems put things on indefinite pause for a while. When the clouds cleared in 2012, the group traveled to Portland, Oregon to work with new producer Tucker Martine (R.E.M., Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens). The result is another installment of brilliant pop from the group, with vocalist Tracyanne Campbell's now trademark mixture of heartbreaking and sharply astute lyrical turns guiding the songs through either romantic longing, dour tragedy, or touches of the band's more and more familiar dry sense of humor. The production is somewhat more clear than previous efforts, relying less on reverb and stuffing the frequency ranges with even more string sections, odd percussion, and pop accents than before. The upbeat tunes like "Troublemaker" and "Do It Again" flirt with synth pop undertones in the form of interlocking synthesizer lines and drum machine-like beats that meld with Campbell's sad-hearted harmonies and the more familiar Bacharach-ian percussion of previous albums. The lush melancholia of "William's Heart" evokes the soft, airy sadness of the Go-Betweens or even early solo Morrissey, the repeating lyrical coda "To die in the arms of a 20-year-old" giving the song an uneasy connotation that entwines death, aging, and heartbreak. Elsewhere, "Every Weekday" hits the same stride between jaunty and sad that the Smiths excelled at, with Johnny Marr-esque guitar playing and a singsongy melody. Campbell's lyrics hit the balance between comical and utterly devastated throughout the record, with references to watching Flashdance repeatedly somehow making sense next to lines about rejection and bitterly failed loves. What's most striking about Desire Lines is the sense that, even in all the unsettled feelings and somewhat self-effacing themes of their music, Camera Obscura are completely comfortable in their skin at this point. In a roundabout way, Desire Lines is reminiscent of Belle & Sebastian's 2003 effort Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Though that album was spottier and more stylistically all over the place, it seemed like the most deliberate album from B&S at the time, and that every choice was emphatically decided on, regardless of the sometimes weird or unpopular results. Desire Lines has a similar feel of a band bounding out of the gates with a renewed creative energy. Here it results in some of their best and most confident work to date. ~ Fred Thomas