Brighten the Corners 

Sad Songs Say So Much

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Camera Obscura titled their third album Let's Get out of This Country, and upon its 2006 release, that's exactly what they did. The Scottish band attracted a bigger audience than ever, hurdling over Glaswegian peers Belle and Sebastian to become the foremost international purveyors of vintage-sparked, mopey-but-chipper sweater pop. The band's sound comes straight from classic 45s—Northern soul, American country, orchestral ballads—but its heart inevitably remains shrouded in mournful Scottish mists.

It's a good thing, then, that Camera Obscura never overlooks the uplifting power of ecstatic pop music, and by backing her forlorn songs with sweetly gorgeous sounds, primary songwriter Tracyanne Campbell can focus on matters of the heart. The band's latest, My Maudlin Career, is a simultaneous travelogue and tracking of a love affair, and its best moments are spellbindingly haunting love songs. "French Navy" captures the initial joy of new love in a dizzying Motown production, complete with rapid violins and lyrics like, "You make me go ooh/with the things that you do."

But the rest of the record depicts the disintegration of the affair against the familiar backdrop of the life of a touring band on the road. The album's most quietly devastating track, "Away with Murder," is a surreal country song, with its clip-clop two-step played by echoing tom-toms and pleading fiddle. Says keyboardist Carey Lander, "[That] was one that almost didn't make the album because we couldn't quite nail it for some reason, but then it came together at the last minute. It seems to be a lot of people's favorite but it was close to being a disaster."

The song's lyrics refer to the band's stop in Portland for a 2007 Valentine's Day show. Campbell sings, "People have been traveling miles just to hear us sing/It's a February night and I don't want to feel anything/To get away, maybe I could sell kisses/In Portland I tried my pretty hand at fishing." Perhaps fortunately, Campbell didn't linger in our burg to pursue the fishing life—she was meant to be a songwriter.

Lander explains the Scottish band's connection with Portland. "There's some kind of kinship with the weather, maybe. I like smaller cities where everything isn't so spread out. It feels like it's small enough that there's a sense of community and there are so many bands coming out there. It's quite a good music city."

My Maudlin Career's sumptuous tones are a perfect counterbalance to Campbell's pained lyrics, and the orchestral backdrop offsets her stoic, almost thuggish delivery. She explores the full spectrum of romantic sentiment, from head-rushing highs to soul-plumbing depths. "I'm going on a date tonight," begins "The Sweetest Thing" optimistically, then continues, "To try to fall out of love with you." And on the excellent title track, "You kissed me on the forehead/Now this kiss is giving me a concussion."

It's a credit to both Campbell's songwriting and Camera Obscura's subtlety and grace that these breakup songs don't get bogged down in feelings of bitterness or resentment. Its title notwithstanding, there's not a single maudlin moment on My Maudlin Career. Juxtaposing sad words with happy music is an old but extremely effective trick, and Camera Obscura takes it one step further. Through its use of vintage sounds and its embrace of fluid, gossamer arrangements, Camera Obscura's music itself becomes the redeemer, the only reliable way to deal with heartbreak.

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