Memphis: A Little Place in the Wilderness

[26 March 2007]

By Joe Tacopino

Torquil Campbell is the lead singer of Stars, the Canadian pop group known for their lush dreamy soundscapes. Last summer, his Stars counterpart, fellow vocalist Amy Millan, released a solo project of mediocre country tunes. Millan’s album had its moments, but it mostly left fans wondering when she’ll quit the pseudo-Americana and return to her indie pop roots. Memphis is Campbell’s own side project (with longtime friend Chris Dumont), and like Stars, the album is full of sparse, atmospheric pop songs. Unlike Stars, however, Memphis’s songs are not as dramatic, and are sometimes vacant or just downright sleepy. Although not terrible, A Little Place in the Wilderness will most likely encourage Stars fans to yearn for the day when its two vocalists, Millan and Campbell, will collaborate once again.

The two main aspects of Memphis are Dumont’s delicate, airy guitar and Campbell’s wispy, lovestruck lyrics. The two have a knack for penning soft, lethargic dream pop—a collaboration which reportedly works better than with Campbell’s Stars counterparts. (Campbell complained of the “anal retentive” aspect of the band in an interview last fall.) If the Dumont/Campbell duo is the foundation of Memphis, the coterie of friends who contribute are pleasant accessories to these sedated soundscapes. There is your occasional pedal steel, soothing violins, some light brushstrokes on the drums, a piano riff here or there, maybe a horn or two of in the distance. This results in a broad palette of distinct instruments combining to make cozy pop ballads.

In a reference to the band’s debut album, “I Dreamed We Fell Apart” sets the stage for what will be a long, lazy ride. Campbell likes to wallow in “dreams”, and the only aspect of these songs that are as sparse as the instrumentation are the random, broad strokes of his lyrics, which depict seemingly unconnected moments of solace and beauty. Airplanes in the atmosphere, stars in a valley, a town megaplex; all these images and more appear as if we’re hearing the soundtrack to an inconsistent slideshow.

There are a couple of tepid standouts on the effort, but neither gives enough to satisfy our dream pop desires. The lonesome but upbeat nature of “Incredibly Drunk on Whiskey” provides a welcome waltz-like departure from the mostly mellow album. Campbell sings about (you guessed it) boozing it up while a cheerful clarinet carries the song through its repetitious transgressions. I don’t have the patience to count how many times the song’s title, or a variation of it, appears; but let’s just say its way too much (20! OK?).  The title track gives us a needed dose of quality pop, just as the effort becomes nearly unbearable. The song’s twinkling guitar riff and light trumpet-laden crescendo provides just the right amount of grandeur for Campbell’s fragile vocals. 

It may be a blessing and a curse that Memphis is so closely related to Campbell’s main group. The preexisting street cred gives the album some initial appeal, but the specter of Stars is ultimately too much for the group to live up to. There are moments where Campbell’s soft voice combines with Dumont’s breezy hooks to create some well-intentioned atmospheric pop, but these instances are rare. A Little Place in the Wilderness is decent, in its own right, but Torquil Campbell fans are probably better off waiting for him to release a new Stars album.

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