Camera Obscura: 27 June 2009 - Toronto

Photo: Donald Milne

This show not only brought life and muscle to the band’s new songs, it made me reconsider my feelings about their latest album.

Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura

City: Toronto
Venue: Lee’s Palace
Date: 2009-06-27

Anyone paying sufficient attention to Camera Obscura’s breakthrough 2006 album Let’s Get Out of This Country could have told you that the band isn’t as retiring or shy as their reputation might suggest. While the record possesses plenty of the melancholy that is Camera Obscura’s stock in trade, it’s a constructive, almost fortifying gloominess. Singer Tracyanne Campbell’s head is always held high, whether she’s wanting something to happen on “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken”, making plans to escape on the title track, or even missing someone while on tour (“Country Mile”). There was always the sense that Let’s Get Out of This Country was more about the way we deal with sadness than about sadness itself, which elevated the album above most of its peers.

This year’s My Maudlin Career, while more intricately detailed and sonically lavish than ever, seems like a bit of a step back from that strength. A cycle of songs beginning with infatuation (“French Navy”, which admits repeatedly that “I wanted to control it / But love, I couldn’t hold it,” a stark contrast to Campbell’s lovelorn self-sufficiency throughout Let’s Get Out of This Country) My Maudlin Career progresses through various faults, breakups, fights, and bad behavior (not to mention pining) until “Honey in the Sun” ends the album. By this point, after admitting that no matter how hard she tries, Campbell can’t bring herself to be cold to the charming, unpredictable, possibly manipulative male figure that’s been running her ragged throughout the record.

I like My Maudlin Career, but I loved Let’s Get Out of This Country and I admit that a good deal of that distinction is down to the amount of comfort and support I’ve taken from the tough-minded attitude of this album, it’s determination to neither avoid sadness nor to wallow in it. I was excited to see Camera Obscura live but also worried that they’d be taking more cues from their newest album. I needn’t have worried; their set at a packed, overly warm Lee’s Palace this June not only brought life and muscle to the band’s new songs, it made me reconsider my feelings about My Maudlin Career.

Visually the band were about what you’d expect, Campbell and keyboardist Carey Lander resplendent in dresses straight from a ‘60s typing pool and guitarist Kenny McKeeve sporting not just a shirt but a tie. McKeeve and the rhythm section of Gavin Dunbar and Lee Thomson provided a surprisingly firm and energetic base for the band’s music, and that base was ably colored in by Campbell’s guitar and voice, Lander’s multifaceted keyboard work, and Nigel Baillie’s astute and flexible performance on trumpet, percussion, and whatever a given song needed.

The setlist was heavy on the last two albums, with only “Teenager”, “Eighties Fan”, and a stark, moving rendition of “Books Written for Girls” dating back to the band’s first two albums. And the crowd was predictably enthusiastic -- going nuts for “French Navy” and “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” and cheering for the “like a river in Toronto” line in the chorus of “Forests & Sands”. But while the live versions of highlights like “Let’s Get Out of This Country” and “Honey in the Sun” were great, they weren’t as revelatory as McKeeve and Campbell’s guitar and voice duo on “Other Towns & Cities” or how affecting “You Told a Lie” was live or especially the ferocious run through of “If Looks Could Kill” that ended the main set.

By the time the magisterial trumpet-and-feedback coda of “Razzle Dazzle Rose” ended the encore, Camera Obscura had proven to me that the material from My Maudlin Career was a lot stronger than I’d given them credit for. It is an album about being hopelessly in love with someone who probably isn’t suitable for you, but there’s a verve and wit there that I’d overlooked in my rush to try and make the album something it’s not. In essence, it’s not just another album from someone who lets people walk all over them. Campbell’s narrator is perfectly aware of the situation she’s in when she coos “When you’re lucid, you’re the sweetest thing” or when she wishes her heart would freeze, and that makes the band’s performance -- live or on record -- much stronger than it would be if she just felt sorry for herself. Above all else, Campbell and Camera Obscura still specialize in gorgeously written and detailed songs, and My Maudlin Career benefits from having a different perspective and tone than the album before it. I just needed to have the band in my face, blending songs from both albums and pulling all of them off with energy and aplomb before I could realize it.

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