So far, I've written eight album reviews for Neumu. In looking back over my previous entries, I've noticed some predictable stylistic tendencies. My reviews usually begin with a short, often seemingly incongruous, "attention-grabbing" sentence. Read enough of my reviews, and you'll also discover that I favor the not-so-subtle art of bombastic hyperbole. Not being one to buck trends, I present to you review #9, in which I fuse bombast directly into my opening sentence:
Motown is the single greatest achievement of Western music. A paragon. It and gypsy swing are the only two genres universally adored. I have not yet met a person who can't enjoy these kinds of music. If you, gentle reader, choose to disagree, I posit that you are an aberration. Perhaps even inhuman. Now that I've gotten that off my chest, let's get out of this country.
As I've mentioned before, I lived in Glasgow (Old Kilpatrick to be exact) for a few months during the winter of 2003. Kenny and Margaret Miller were my surrogate family; my base of operations was their home overlooking the Clyde estuary. (By the way, they run a fantastic bed and breakfast, so if you're ever looking for a place to stay while you're in the Glasgow area, you should look them up just tell them I sent you.) From there, the train into city center rolls through an industrial, riverside landscape of ancient shipyards. Looking out the windows on dour January days, one can't help but hear some sort of location-specific soundtrack.
"Why are you telling me this?" you ask. It just so happens that Camera Obscura are from Glasgow. I'm of the mindset that if you can envision a little of the place, the music will be all the more relevant.
Let's Get Out of This Country is, on the surface, a simple album. Decked out in the finest Motown raiment, it hearkens back to the days of AM radio and a time when the prevailing pop ethos was "the lusher the better." No, this is not new or innovative by any stretch of the imagination. Camera Obscura are just one of many bands in a recent resurgence of this production aesthetic. But there is something that sets them apart from the gaggle authenticity. While their sound may be familiar, Camera Obscura are anything but run-of-the-mill.
Every aspect of the music is flawless. From Tracyanne Campbell's clear, emotive voice to the classic guitar tone straight out of The Temptations' "My Girl." The melodic lines are insanely catchy and hook-laden. Call-and-response vocals are littered throughout. Bass lines bounce along with propulsive power. Orchestral fills crop up in all the right places. These elements work together to make each song a tightly constructed affair.
"Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken" is a triumphant opener, finally answering the question posed by Lloyd Cole's 1984 song "Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?" I find fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable quite endearing. Like saying: "I know I'm going to be heartbroken, so why not welcome it?" This and other similarly self-deprecating feelings make up the bulk of the lyric themes. For instance, in the title track, Campbell sings: "We'll find a cathedral so that you can convince me I am pretty." Notice how she needs "convincing" that she's pretty. And in "I Need All the Friends I Can Get," she says: "You can't see that I'm just the same as all the stupid people you hate. I'm not saying I'm free from them because I need all the friends I can get." There's that resignation again.
But it's all about delivery. By swaddling these lyrics in jovial arrangements, Camera Obscura are taking part in a time-honored tradition. I could name a zillion examples of this from Marty Robbins' "Singing the Blues" to Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown." All of them sing about sadness with a smile. The bigger the smile, the more effective it is at conveying the underlying sadness. Just so with the songs on Let's Get Out of This Country. Even the saddest arrangements belie an undercurrent of happy melancholy. "Country Mile" has a lifting, "keep your chin up" melody. "Tears for Affairs" has a wistfully climbing organ line and cascading response vocals. These combine to demonstrate a sighing, almost clumsy resilience in the face of woeful circumstance.
Begrudging self-reliance pervades. This spirit, in part, is what makes Let's Get Out of This Country such an uplifting, comforting listen. People just like you or me, slogging through emotional adversity. Have Camera Obscura evoked the Everyman? Certainly most quality music is able to make that connection in some way or another. The bigger question is: Who would have expected the Motown sound from Scotland?
Eh... it's not really that outrageous if you think about it. Glasgow. Detroit. Shipyards. Car factories. The smokestacks of one city are sister to another's.
And I noticed something else during my Neumu stocktaking Iím longwinded. Oh well.