“Apparently, everybody knows if you have a baby in September, then you’ve been at it over Christmas … like all the rest of them. I didn’t realize it was such a cliché.”
Tracyanne Campbell, lead singer of the charming Glasgow pop group Camera Obscura, was taking a moment in the middle of a sold-out show at Le Poisson Rouge Tuesday night to fill the crowd in about recent events in her life. The baby in question was hers, and his arrival last year had partially derailed the septet’s promotional plans for its fifth album, Desire Lines. But now all was well, the band was back on the road, and it was O.K. to own up to the mild embarrassment of doing something a lot of other people do.
Campbell spoke to the audience in a thick Scottish burr with a deadpan, seemingly dour expression. She sings the band’s songs in a similar way, giving next to no outward sign of the emotions that course through them. Her voice is a giveaway, though: plain, pure and sweet, sliding up and down to notes with a kind of half-gulp, as if some almost-but-not-quite-sublimated yearning were lingering in the back of her throat. A quick scan of her lyrics fills in the rest of the picture. Lots of romantic disenchantment, making the most of small gifts, and the occasional, almost apologetic lapse into starry-eyed optimism. Titles like “I Don’t Do Crowds,” “Suspended from Class” and “My Maudlin Career” indicate the type of wit to be found in a Camera Obscura song.
(You can also get a good feel for the band’s sense of humor by watching the video to “Troublemaker” above—a great song from Desire Lines that they didn’t play Tuesday night. If you know anything about British ’70s sci-fi TV, it’s sure to raise a chuckle or two.)
The rest of the band backed Campbell up with appropriate restraint. Guitarists Kenny McKeeve and Tim Davidson wove delicate parts that evoked the Brill Building, Motown, Nashville and West Africa at various times; their spacey interaction on “Country Mile,” with Davidson handling pedal steel, was especially rich. Tim Cronin doubled on energetic percussion and stately trumpet. Keyboardist Carey Lander, bouncing back from a recent tangle with cancer, was the band’s not-so-hidden prime mover, nailing the smooth sax part on “This Is Love (Feels Alright)” and the crystalline piano chords on “Books Written for Girls.” And by the final encore, “Razzle Dazzle Rose,” unfailingly tasteful drummer Lee Thomson had somehow managed to work up quite a head of steam—relatively speaking, of course.
What is it about Scotland that engenders such musical gentleness? From Orange Juice to the Pastels to Belle and Sebastian (whose Stuart Murdoch produced Camera Obscura’s debut album and whose influence on their music remains evident), a long line of bright, sensitive, lite-rocking Scots stretches over decades now. I blame the weather. I also wonder how many people in the audience were familiar with Marc Spitz’s recent book Twee, which pretty much summarizes the entire experience of this concert.
If any attendees were aware of their own twee tendencies, however, they betrayed no embarrassment about it. (And why should they?) In fact, their vigorous dancing, hoots and yells often seemed out of proportion to the music. Despite all that exterior reserve, it was clear that the performers were moved by the acclaim. Campbell even politely inquired whether it might be possible for tonight’s crowd to follow the band around for the remainder of its U.S. tour. “We’ll give you discount tickets,” she offered, with a smile (for once). At the very least, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see a lot of the same faces at Camera Obscura’s next show, which is tonight at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.