It was summertime, so insects of prey were legion. In 2006, the Glaswegian indie-pop band Camera Obscura performed at the Cat's Cradle in Carrboro. I had the assignment to interview lead singer and songwriter Tracyanne Campbell, so late that afternoon, I suggested we chat on an outdoor bench behind the club.
From the stage later that evening, Campbell mentioned that she liked everything about North Carolina—home of the label that then licensed Camera Obscura records in the U.S., Merge—"except the bugs." She scratched her arm furiously.
I felt bad for getting Campbell chewed up, but that image often returns to me when I listen to Camera Obscura's songs. Within those tunes, a consistent musical sweetness covers the emotionally itchy sentiments to which Campbell often returns, like bites she won't let heal. Her great topics are the classic ones—love and desire. But instead of writing from their secure centers, she anxiously lingers at their borderlands, usually on the way in or out. Wavering between faith and fickleness, vulnerability and vengefulness, she writes herself as a charmingly hapless character, with her heart in her throat and her foot in her mouth. In an emblematic image from the title track of 2009's My Maudlin Career, a kiss on the forehead in one line becomes a concussion in the next.
"Comfort" is hardly the first quality you would ascribe to a perspective like this, but while Campbell's uneasiness in her skin is inseparable from Camera Obscura's appeal, so is the band's deep-seated comfort in its aesthetic approach. Their catalog is a series of fine readjustments that trends retrograde in a indie music climate besotted with the sound of what's next. Camera Obscura are a great band for an unfashionable reason: They write great songs. In a climate of wanton musical expansion, a little reliable conservatism can scratch an itch we forgot we even had.
The most drastic shift in Camera Obscura's style came between 2003's Underachievers Please Try Harder and 2006's Let's Get Out of This Country. Their cuddly indie folk broadened into more confident orchestral pop, R&B and soul, '50s rock and beach music, and classic American songwriting. All of this helped to sever the comparisons to Belle & Sebastian—standard-bearers of U.K. twee-folk with male and female vocals—that dogged Camera Obscura for longer than was justified. But none of these adjustments altered their core principle of playing tastefully proportioned music on old-fashioned instruments in classic pop styles. "I think it's important to try and make changes even if they are small changes," Campbell recently told music blog Consequence of Sound.
Camera Obscura sound more like themselves than ever on the new Desire Lines, a record firmly rooted in the breezy caresses of early rock music and the brassy ebullience of Motown. For Desire Lines, Camera Obscura left Merge and their longtime European label, Elefant. They broke off from longtime Swedish producer Jari Haapalainen to record in Portland, Ore., with Tucker Martine, noted for his work on records by the likes of Kentucky rockers My Morning Jacket and Canadian country iconoclast Neko Case. (Case and MMJ's Jim James both provide subtle backing vocals here.)
In spite of the changes, and at a time when whole albums are made over computer networks, Camera Obscura did as they've always done: The band recorded live in the same room, though endearing mistakes that were allowed to stand on the Swedish records are more often glossed with overdubs. Martine's bright, pristine, vintage-reverbed essence makes Camera Obscura sound more than ever like a throwback to narrower, firmer musical parameters. There are still no concessions to modern trends—no lo-fi affectations, mechanized nods to electronic dance music or Internet-era genre splices.
But there is that element of emotional turmoil that always gives Camera Obscura's inviting music its hidden edge. On the stunning "Fifth in Line to the Throne," Campbell imagines herself as a queen who attracts devotion that could, at any moment, turn fatal: "How am I going to tell my king that I don't trust his throne anymore?"
Back in 2006, when asked about her singled-minded focus on perfecting old forms rather than inventing new ones, Campbell replied, "I don't really want to turn into some band that tries to do something too off-the-wall." She has kept her word, continuing to hide dangerous, sharp sentiments in safe, reassuring music like razors in apples.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Twelve-year itch."