With Phil Spector in the jailhouse and out of his mind, upkeep on the Wall of Sound has fallen upon a new generation of ambitious pop purists. Tops among them perhaps is Camera Obscura's pint-sized siren Tracyanne Campbell—a shy, blue-eyed lass once known as the frowning face of Glasgow's indie scene, but now increasingly regarded as one of the elite songwriters in all of contemporary pop. The latest evidence for the latter perspective is My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura's fourth LP and, if you ask Campbell, their best to date.
"Well, I think it's very natural for a band to record a new album and think that it's their best," she says. "Obviously, you don't want to say, 'Oh, this one isn't really as good as the other records' [laughs], but I think it's important for us to feel like we're progressing and always getting better. In general, I think our confidence is growing. It's growing all the time. We're getting better at songwriting, arranging and at just putting a little more sparkle on the records, you know? So, without making it too complicated, I think it is our best, for those reasons."
Campbell's conversational voice loses little of the feathery-soft, attractively detached tone that makes her vocal style so affecting on Camera Obscura's records. Toss in a musically intonated Scottish accent, and transcribing 30 minutes of her quotes suddenly becomes quite the delightful experience. The irony, of course, is that Campbell has never been known as a particularly delightful person. Her typical lyrical themes—heartbreak, loneliness and general wistfulness—helped create the very reputation that she sought to address on My Maudlin Career.
"I suppose I had a bit of a moment of clarity in a way," Campbell says. "I was working on songs for the new album, and I knew that people would say that they were very sad or melancholy, as they often do, but it became funny to me in a way—how I was writing these sad songs and trying to build a career out of it. It just seemed ludicrous to me that this is what I'm doing, you know? Trying to build a career in misery is quite funny."
Campbell decided to embrace the absurdity of her chosen profession a bit, naming the album My Maudlin Career, a title that also serves as a play on words. (As she had to point out to me, it sounds like "my modeling career.") Released last month, the album is Camera Obscura's first since leaving Merge Records for 4AD, but it generally continues where 2006's excellent Let's Get Out of This Country left off—snappy hooks, heavy reverb, slick '60s orchestration and pristine Spector-like arrangements. There's even a wee bit of positivity seeping through Campbell's latest tales of woe.
"I think I'm quite naturally a melancholy person," she explains, "but it's something I've constantly struggled with and tried to fight. I'm very aware of it, and I do make the conscious effort to change. I don't want to be the sort of person that just wallows in sadness and pity. There's too much to be getting on with in life."
Accordingly, Campbell manages some of the cheeriest moments of her maudlin career on new songs like "French Navy" and "Swans" (albeit with a tad of sarcasm mixed in). All things considered, though, the new album's standout track is probably still its saddest—the haunting, violin-assisted breakup ballad "Away With Murder."
"It's a dark song, there's no getting away from that," Campbell says. "And I don't think I wanted to dress it up as anything else." While the song was written about a self-centered ex-lover, in lieu of recent events, it could almost double as an eerie farewell to Campbell's fallen hero, the convicted murderer Phil Spector: "How many times will I let you get away with murder? / How many times will you make me feel more alive?"
"Yeah, my God, it's just such a bizarre story," Campbell says, "that somebody so talented and who influenced so many bands and producers for so many years has ended up like this. But I can't take away what (Spector) has done and given to people like me. I just think it's really sad and tragic. He's a troubled man. But I'm not going to go smash up my Spector records, especially not the Christmas record [laughs]. It's not going in the bin!"
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