Paul Melancon crafts deceptively melodic pop songs that seem fun and catchy to the ear, yet offer more moody depth than one might at first expect. There’s a lot of subtle complexity at work in lyrics and musical nuance, but most of it remains veiled to the passing ear, hinted at without adequate explanation. For instance, a vague thematic concept involving a California amusement park never seems to coalesce fully, but still this doesn’t mar one’s enjoyment of a quality collection.
This former member of Atlanta’s Radiant City gone solo has a voice and style that compares favorably with the likes of Michael Penn, Elliott Smith, and Matthew Sweet. And while the back of the CD lyric booklet urges you to “Play Camera Obscura just for fun”, these songs sound sunnier than they actually are. Almost all the songs here delve into the angst and agonies of torn relationships and misunderstandings.
“Overture” gets things started in what sounds upbeat musically, but actually is a plea for a two-week second chance at a relationship previously gone awry. Melancon is in fine voice here, and his songwriting muscle is stronger than ever when animated through the skills of such fine musicians as Rob Gal (who also produced the album) and John Cerreta, Pete McDate on drums for about half the songs, and a host of additional guest artists.
“King Sham” mixes harder guitars with organ leads and some nice falsetto backing vox, as Melancon confesses that he is more sham than king: “Look up, see my subjects have had it / Look up, that’s my name they’re all damning / There’s a chance I can tell / Well, at least one in hell / It fits only too well but it’s not mine”.
We get a somber ballad in the wistful “Sherman”, which continues the tale of reunited ex-lovers. This is fine complex pop song-craft, and Melancon’s vocals convey all the emotional regrets and trepidation and then some. The theme is further explored (in yet a different musical way) in “Now Wait for Last Year”, a song that holds its own alongside many standard Elvis Costello compositions.
The band plays well here, Rob Gal’s bass really anchoring John Cerreta’s vibraphone to rivet the listener to Melancon’s voice. Meanwhile, there is more lyrical musing about this relationship that failed before and why: “Could I get you to stay? / Could we ever hope to be all right? / I only let you in so we could just begin / To wrap it up and say it’s over”.
These ten all are Melancon songs, with the exception of the sultry soothing Caribbean rhythms of “Entr’acte”, a Gal/Cerreta composition to how love should be (and a bonus unlisted cover at CD’s end of the Beach Boys’ “You’re So Good to Me”, done in full bubblegum splendor).
Melancon really shows his ability to write infectious melodic pop with two fun standout songs that depart slightly from this continuing story of broken relationship. The first, “Jeff Lynne”, manages to cull a wide treasure of Lynne musical references while telling the story of a man who tries to be like him. The second, “Hitchcock Blonde”, captures the noir essence of the femme fatale all within a catchy energetic tune that deserves radio time in a better world (again, another song that could have been a Costello composition).
Perhaps the sweetest song here is the unadorned, ukulele-driven gem “Little Plum”. This is an outright ode to a relationship, exploring the seasonal changes from first love all the way through to ultimate betrayal and sorrow.
The pensive moodier Melancon (the real Melancon, perhaps?) is on display with the slower paced songs here. “Hey California” gets right in your face with its bare-bones arrangement of sweet voice and guitar that gives way to strings and an urgent chorus. This is heated emotional fare: “Could we both be honest here this time? / I won’t spit your name if you’ll learn mine / I’ll be fine”.
“Fine” wraps up this ongoing tale of unhappy relationship in a startling way (though to hear the song you might pick up on all that the words convey). A note left provokes ugly action — a suicidal fire is set and the amusement park goes up in heat and light, a different type of show.
While the concept story works passably well, the individual songs stand alone without losing any power. Those unfamiliar with Paul Melancon will find Camera Obscura an experience similar to unearthing hidden treasure. Melancon’s moody pop sensibilities are top-notch, and his songwriting and vocal skills seem better than ever as he continues to grow as an artist and musician. For those who find current top 40 fluff to be seriously lacking, Camera Obscura serves up hook-laden soft pop with intelligence and sensitivity, aural snapshots worthy of preservation in an album.