Camera Obscura

My Maudlin Career

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If Camera Obscura's jump from Merge (and Elefant) to 4AD had you worried, or if you had a nagging suspicion that the switch was some kind of cynical career move and that they might change from being a small band with a knack for creating small moments of transcendent beauty and emotion to bland major-label-styled product (not that 4AD is any more "major label" than Merge in 2009, but they do seem more like big business somehow), well, you can relax now. The only thing that's changed is that the band appears to have hired fancier stylists for their photo shoots. My Maudlin Career is almost an exact copy of their previous album Let's Get Out of This Country, from Jari Haapalainen's echo-ey, layered production to the mix of ballads and uptempo songs to the preponderance of strings and the unflinchingly honest lyrics. And of course, Tracyanne Campbell's beguiling vocals and the note-perfect performances from the band (now down to a five-piece with the departure of trumpeter Nigel Baillie). Both albums lead off with their hookiest song (in this case the extremely lovely "French Navy"), both have moments of Motown-fueled joy ("Honey in the Sun") and quiet country rock ("Forest and Sands"), and both excel at dramatic girl group-influenced ballads (the title track, "The Sweetest Thing"). Like the last album, too, Campbell's words are sad to the point of gloomy. This time out though, she cranks the sadness to 11 as the record unfolds like a travelogue of disappointment, stopping for frozen rivers in Toronto, "half full moons in Mexico," kisses in Spain, California redwoods, and bus trips from Cleveland to Chicago as her relationship unravels. That Campbell had her heart broken is plain, and she isn't shy about giving out details and delving deep into the dark corners of her misery. It's quite brave, and she makes it work by pairing the despair of the verses with easy-to-sing-along-with choruses (and also by writing lovely melodies that band and producer fully flesh out with a light and steady hand). Too many confessional writers seem to forget these vital elements, but she stays on top of it almost without fail. In fact, the only song that on the album that falls a little flat fails in that very regard; "Other Towns & Cities" is a meandering ballad that has unusual rhymes and vocal lines, but not much else going on musically. Still, one not-amazing song doesn't make the album any less of a musical success or a less powerful emotional experience, because it truly is both. And if My Maudlin Career falls a tiny bit short of Let's Get Out of This Country (and it does), it's only because that album was so wonderful. Really, the group could go on remaking it for years with negligible complaints from their fans along with very few diminishing returns.

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