Album Review: Camera Obscura’s ‘Desire Lines’
by Devin William Daniels
Camera Obscura‘s new album, Desire Lines, is a dreamy and pristine offering, a reverse time capsule of pop music from a past that never existed. The high and heartbroken denizens of Rick Deckard‘s Los Angeles would probably find it nostalgic; in 2013, it’s just a blur. The record is covered in the musical equivalent of the new car smell. It’s undeniably new – the leather’s unworn, the windshield will never be more clear – yet also evokes the spirit of the ‘classic.’
Camera Obscura possesses a pop sensibility that clashes with the modern idea of pop. The songs are clean and appealing, lacking in the cynical devotion to familiarity that dominates the radio waves. Camera Obscura’s pop sound is not exactly old school, though. The melancholic, oneiric overtones and the trip-hop guitar lines do not neatly fit into past traditions and would unlikely top the pop charts. However, one could imagine a record like Desire Lines in regular rotation if the musical dominoes had fallen a little differently. It’s like the retro-can of Dr. Pepper made with real sugar and without Iron Man 3 promo labels – nostalgia in the form of a modern commodity – and that strange sense of temporality is the dominant experience of the album.
An attentive listener of the album may call it “boring,” and perhaps “great background music” – which are not the most flattering of epithets; and yet, so effective is its hypnotic atmosphere that whatever mundane activity occupies the listeners’ “foreground” becomes undeniably colored by the “background.”
Of course, some would argue that the point of a record is to supply great songs, and Desire Lines does not necessarily succeed in that regard. Individual tracks rarely come out and grab you, which separates it from the hook-and-hit focus of much of indie pop, for both good and bad. When there are songs that do stand out, it’s usually due to an incongruous break of the mood rather than a moment of pop transcendence. “Do It Again” – around the album’s midpoint – is the most guilty of this offense; but, it didn’t take long for the following song, the wonderfully arranged, “Cri du Ceour,” to bring me back under the spell.
In the final analysis, Desire Lines is high on atmosphere and low on substance. Upon inspection, the individual elements of the record are lacking in much positive content. Hooks are largely missing, and when they are, they’re quite weak. Tracyanne Campbell’s vocals are technically strong but end up sounding like buttered toast; you can get these vocals anywhere, and there’s little reason to make a special trip.
Campbell sacrifices individuality and affect for dreaminess, without capturing the unique haunting vocalizations of an artist like Victoria Legrand. Campbell’s voice is paired with well-arranged instruments that are at worst, precise, and at best, brilliant. But she never really makes the songs her own amongst all the technical wizardry of the production. We’re left with a well-executed, consistent dream pop album that never really breaks out into a run, but it’s a fairly enjoyable sleepwalk.
Rating: 6.5 of 10
Devin William Daniels is a freelance writer and musician from Allentown, Pennsylvania. He teaches English in South Korea and records music as the Negative Sound