CAMERA OBSCURA – DESIRE LINES (BEST OF 2013)

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Camera Obscura have built a career on writing love songs. Songs about blossoming relationships; romantic breakdowns; indecent affairs; heartbreaks; rejection; resignation; love of the wild, ecstatic, unbridled variety; love of the cruel, unrequited variety; even love of the mundane, everyday variety – the Glaswegian indie-pop veterans have been mining this singular subject for the past 20 years and in doing so have forged one of the most consistently brilliant discographies in indie music today.

Desire Lines predictably picks up where 2009’s My Maudlin Career left off, circling the same musical threads of Motown-era soul, country balladeering, lush stringed arrangements and the indie sensibilities of their forebears Belle and Sebastian that the band perfected on 2006’s still-essential Let’s Get Out Of The Country. That Desire Lines is content to retread familiar terrain without ever truly reaching for something new is the only real criticism that could be levied against the album in good conscience. But when the melodies are this crisp, and the harmonies this sweet, it’s hard to view any perceived dearth of musical progression as a true drawback.

Delayed by band illnesses and indefinite hiatuses, the recording of Desire Lines moved Camera Obscura out of the country, all the way to Portland, Oregon, to work with producer Tucker Martin (R.E.M, Sufjan Stevens). Despite this change in personnel and scenery, the band’s autumnal aesthetic remains very much intact. And after a perfunctory swell of Jeremy Kittel’s introductory strings, the album starts proper with “This is Love (Feels Alright)”, a cautionary tale of teenage romance told with jaunty guitars, melancholy horns, and subtle percussion that will sound comfortingly familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the band’s work.

As with all Camera Obscura albums, it’s Tracyanne Campbell’s plainly beautiful voice that quickly takes centre stage. Like sunlight flooding through the cracks, Campbell’s voice has the enviable quality of filling even the coldest and darkest of spaces with a warmth and brightness that just feels endlessly welcoming. It’s on the up-tempo “Troublemaker” though, that Campbell’s trademark dry sense of humour amidst lyrical presentiments of romantic doom gets its first airing. “Three years in and I call to crush what remains of this love / It’s going to be one hell of a year” she sings between swathes of melodic guitar lines and a faint synth pulse. Just as the protagonists in early Bruce Springsteen songs openly fantasised of escaping their surroundings only to remain trapped without the courage to first escape themselves; Campbell more often than not seems stuck in the wrong relationship at the wrong time, with one foot in the tryst and one foot out the door, always lacking the courage to take the next step. “I fall down like a tonne of bricks / What makes me sick won’t make me quit”.

Album highlight “William’s Heart” sees Campbell’s infectious vocal harmonies weave in and out of Kenny McKeeve’s shimmering guitar, swirling around the lyrical coda, “To die in the arms of a twenty year old“; and the title track is full of country swagger and downbeat balladry, with organs, piano, acoustic guitar and lightly brushed drums contributing to yet another tale of heartbreak. It’s not all doom and gloom though, with the upbeat nostalgia of “Do It Again” recalling My Maudlin Career’s sublime “French Navy” in spirit if not tone; and the chipper muted guitar that underscores “Cri Du Couer” is neatly backed by Jeremy Kittel’s stirring strings. Elsewhere, “I Missed Your Party” is a breezy, Motown-esque deep cut that paints sitting at home watching Flashdance as an exercise imbued with heartbreaking implications; “Every Weekday” is musically upbeat with jangly guitars that call to mind Johnny Marr and the Smiths, while lyrically unfurling further romantic strife; and “Fifth In Line To The Throne” is a tragic waltz.

Desire Lines may not throw up any surprises or take Camera Obscura into territory that hasn’t been explored by them on numerous albums already, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When a band is this self-assured and attuned to the quirks that make their music so celebrated by those who are familiar with it, there’s little need to rock the apple cart.

Bob Russell

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MILEY CYRUS: THE SOCIO-POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS OF HER VMA PERFORMANCE

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Originally published on www.yuppee.com on 28/08/13

By now, the images from Miley Cyrus’ performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards (hey, remember when MTV used to play music videos?) have been seared into the retinas of just about every living soul with access to the internet and an hour or two to kill since Sunday. Stripping down to her undies, rubbing her ass on Robin Thicke, and “twerking”, all with an improbably large, wildly flailing tongue protruding from her face, Cyrus’ performance has somehow managed to spark discussions of real socio-political importance.

Designed (I’m assuming) to court controversy and sell records, the contentious performance has been successful in its intent, at least with regards to that first part. For the past few days, it’s been virtually impossible to browse social media websites; alleged news sites; legitimate news sites; forums and/or blogs without being exposed to myriad reminders of the performance’s existence. Given what’s going on in Syria right now, the attention being lavished upon the latest pop-star-publicity-stunt-gone-viral might initially seem churlish and inappropriate, but confoundingly enough, something of some worth might yet come of this mess.

If nothing else, a dialogue has been kicked wide open, between people of all sexes, races and backgrounds with opinions on matters that warrant discussion. The discussion so far has revolved around three key issues: cultural appropriation and implied racism; the over-reliance on public figures as positive role models for children; and the phenomena of “slut-shaming” and how it pertains to female sexuality and society’s far-too-often misogynist views on womenfolk.

One would think and hope that by now, society would be hip to the idea that allowing and actively participating in a form of social control designed specifically to shame women into hiding their sexuality behind closed doors 24/7 is a bad thing. A quick trawl through social media sites on Monday morning however, would have quickly confirmed that such optimism is at best misguided, and at worst crazy and delusional.

Twitter is currently ablaze with poorly worded tweets espousing the belief that Cyrus stripping down to her underwear and shaking her ass is something to be derided and condemned. One such tweet read: “Hear that #SlaneGirl is challenging #Miley Cyrus to a #whore off… Come on Ireland”. It would be nigh on impossible to find a more perfect, concise encapsulation of 21st century misogynist attitudes towards female sexuality and the resultant need for far-reaching discussion on the subject than the above comment. The tweet refers to a recent Eminem gig at Slane Castle in Ireland, at which a seventeen year old girl was photographed administering head to a fellow concert-goer. The images quickly circulated around the internet, with the female blowjobber being widely mocked and shamed for publicly engaging in a sexual act while the male blowjobee was rewarded with scores of virtual bro-fives for publicly engaging in the very same sexual act. These wrong-headed societal attitudes need to be addressed and if a by-product of the VMA fallout is discussions along those lines, then that has to be seen as a good thing.

“But Miley Cyrus is a role model to young people. She should be held to a higher standard than people not in the public eye”. Or so sayeth a lot of people on the internet. And not just on the internet either. While wacky sentiments such as this one are commonplace on the world wide web, they’re now pervading (allegedly) serious morning talk shows like Morning Joe. Show host, Mika Brzezinski said of Miley’s VMA performance: “I think that was really, really disturbing…That was disgusting and embarrassing … That was not attractive… That was really, really bad for anybody who’s younger and impressionable and she’s really messed up”.

The implication here is that an adult woman who used to star in a television show aimed at young girls shouldn’t now be allowed to express her sexuality on television, just in case any “young and impressionable” children are watching (that and the fact that it’s “really messed up“). This line of thinking assumes two things: firstly, that sex and sexuality are fundamentally bad things and that young people are better served by not being exposed to them at all than they are by being educated about them in a fashion that instils in them a realistic and healthy understanding of what sex actually is. And secondly, it assumes that parents of children too young or not yet mature enough to be able to process the implications of a performance such as Miley’s are incapable of distracting their child from the television set long enough to prevent them from being exposed to all that evil sex stuff. And to be fair, if the Parent’s Television Council’s reaction following Sunday’s broadcast is anything to go by, that latter assumption might not be too far wide of the mark.

But if there are any lesson to be learnt by parents of impressionable children after this year’s Video Music Awards and the ensuing discussions, it’s that celebrities can not and should not be relied upon to act as de facto role models to somebody else’s kids. To quote the late, great George Carlin: “If your kid needs a role model and you ain’t it, you’re both fucked”.

The trickiest issues to navigate though (at least to my mind) – and therefore the issues that society can benefit the most from talking about – are those of cultural appropriation and implied racism. More so the former than the latter. It’s relatively easy to see why Cyrus’ performance might be deemed racist. Women, and especially black women, haven’t always and don’t always have the agency over their bodies that they should. By choosing to make use of exclusively black, female dancers, and bring them out on stage for the sole purpose of having their asses slapped by a white person – essentially objectifying them and reducing them to mere props in the process – Cyrus (or whoever made the call to use only black lady dancers and fixate purely on their “black lady behinds”) has (perhaps unwittingly, likely unwittingly, hopefully unwittingly) contributed to that lack of agency, as well as the notion that a butt-load of black people pale in significance to one white person (two, if we count Thicke in all of this).

The cultural appropriation angle is a little harder to get a handle on if you’re not directly effected by it. Being a white male, it’s only been through reading the words and opinions of those who are effected by cultural appropriation (and who are much smarter and more articulate than I am) that I’ve started to look at things from a vantage point that isn’t my own. Had I been writing this article two days ago, this would have likely been the paragraph where I argued that honing in on Cyrus’ “ratchet” persona – in particular her fondness of twerking (or at least attempting to twerk) – and presenting it as an example of cultural appropriation, exposes a reductive idea of black culture and only serves to reinforce the notion that black people and white people are to be treated differently.

While I still believe some of that to be at least partially true, I’ve also come to realise that Miley’s twerking is symptomatic of a far larger issue. The issue is not one of white people using a dance that “belongs” to a black culture; it’s one of a wealthy, white woman exploiting carefully selected facets of black culture for monetary gain, and crucially being able to do so in light of the mainstream’s reluctance to embrace black culture until it’s been filtered through a white performer. There are countless examples of this throughout the history of music, from Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones to Vanilla Ice to Miley Cyrus. It’s not difficult to see why this might become disheartening for minorities whose culture is routinely and cynically mined for profit.

None of this is intended to serve as a critique of Miley Cyrus’ performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards; nor is it a defence or a condemnation of said performance. It’s merely intended to highlight the surprising socio-political discussions it has inspired. As bad, misguided, and plain awkward as the performance may have been (and it really was all of those things), it has at least opened a dialogue that needed to be opened.

Bob Russell