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Paradigm Shifter: Camera Obscura’s Desire Lines

Camera Obscura
Desire Lines

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Desire Lines – Camera Obscura’s fifth album – proves that when bands take risks, they often come up with the best, most surprising, and most satisfying albums of their career.

Rock and roll’s canon indicates as much.

Just look at the 1960s and the giant steps that Bob Dylan took when he followed up the folky Another Side of Bob Dylan with the psychedelic blues and folk rock of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Think about the artistic development that The Beach Boys made from Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) to Pet Sounds to SMiLE. And it’s redundant even to mention The Beatles–who would have thought that Revolver was possible just three years after the release of Please Please Me?

These musicians changed the paradigm for the possibility of their music – and Camera Obscura does the same on Desire Lines. But before I go over what makes Desire Lines such a paradigm shifter, I need to mention two crucial factors that resulted in the album’s creation.

Factor number one: Like any great band, Camera Obscura – as singer-songwriter-guitarist Tracyanne Campbell said in her recent interview with Caught in the Carousel – grew bored with the string-and-brass, Phil Spector-influenced pop of past records, like 2006’s Let’s Get Out of This Country and 2009’s My Maudlin Career. On Desire Lines, Campbell and the rest of the band ignored the advice that Beach Boy Mike Love gave Brian Wilson in 1966 – they definitely “fucked with the formula.”

Factor number two: Camera Obscura worked with a new producer, Tucker Martine (who’s also worked with My Morning Jacket, Neko Case, Sufjan Stevens, R.E.M., and many other significant artists), and recorded Desire Lines in Portland. This decision is key because it encouraged the band to augment their tunes with some healthy American sounds.

Of course, musicians – that is, real people – make the records we love. And band members, with the usual exception of the bandleader, often go unnoticed as contributors, especially in reviews of bands like Camera Obscura that have a leader as talented as Tracyanne Campbell.

Lead guitarist Kenny McKeeve is perhaps most responsible for the newness of Desire Lines. He takes the new space that the removal of the strings and horns clears and delivers an album-length clinic of guitar virtuosity. Listen to the enchanting New-Wave guitar lines of “Troublemaker,” or “Do It Again,” where he rocks out, augmenting Campbell’s Motown-y melody to perfection. On the ballad “William’s Heart,” his playing is so heart-wrenchingly beautiful throughout that his tear-inducing fade solo only adds to the track’s gorgeousness. And you only have to listen to his simply brilliant solo on “Fifth in Line to the Throne” and the country-flavored titled track to understand why I’m praising McKeeve so much.

The open spaces on Desire Lines also give Campbell more room for her excellent melodies and voice to be heard. The mellow ballad “This Is Love (Feels Alright)” features a complex melody in the verses, which showcases Campbell’s ability to sing confidently in her high-register, using her breath and hooky phrases to entice the listener. But all of this is preparation for the chorus, in which she reaches even higher and more emotionally affecting notes.

What’s really cool is the way in which Campbell, throughout Desire Lines, shows how her singing can match any style of music she chooses to sing. Her voice snakes in and out of McKeeve’s guitar lines on the aforementioned “Troublemaker,” creating one of the best – if not the best – melodies of her career. And the 50s’-style ballad “Fifth in Line to the Throne,” on which Neko Case provides tremendous backing vocals as she does on many of the songs on the album, Campbell concocts a melody that you’d expect to hear at a sock hop in Heaven.

Keyboardist Carey Lander also benefits from Martine’s spacious production, creating the most memorable and original parts of her career. She’s the star of “Cri Du Coeur,” which is one of the finest moments on the album. She uses a multitude of keyboards and synths to create a veritable symphony – part orchestral, part futuristic – that backs Campbell’s melody and strong singing to perfection, giving it dimension and emotional drive. Lander, additionally, plays amazing New Wave keys on the poppy “Break It to You Gently” and some organ on “Desire Lines” that just feels right.

Drummer Lee Thomson’s playing also comes to the fore in Martine’s space. Whereas “Troublemaker” shows his ability to lay down a solid, rocking beat, his percussion on “Cri Du Coeur” is probably the most creative playing he’s ever done. The castanets on this track alone make for a cool listen. And check out the way he swings on “I Missed Your Party,” another song that wouldn’t be out of place on an American dance floor of 40 or 50 years ago.

Drumming and percussion, no matter how terrific they are on their own, can’t create rhythmic punch without solid bass work. Thankfully, Camera Obscura have Gavin Dunbar to take care of this. Just listen to “Troublemaker,” which finds Dunbar playing a riff that links Thomson’s rock-solid beat to McKeeve’s driving guitar lines. He’s right in the pocket with Thomason on the breezy, keyboard-led “New Year’s Resolution,” as he is on “Cri Du Coeur,” subtlety contributing to the track’s atmosphere.

Desire Lines shows that Camera Obscura is a band capable of taking giant steps. That is, they aren’t satisfied resting on their considerable laurels. And – because they’re unafraid of risk – they’ve not only made the best record of their career but also shown that they’ve become a great band, not just of today but for all time.