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Both joyous and morose, Scottish pop darlings Camera Obscura frame relatable sonic snapshots



Camera Obscura with Princeton
7 p.m. Thursday
Meacham Auditorium, Oklahoma Memorial Union, University of Oklahoma
900 Asp, Norman
$10 door, free for OU students

 "Are my eyes the coldest blue?" asks singer Tracyanne Campbell on "You Told a Lie," from Camera Obscura's 2009 album, "My Maudlin Career." In a word " yes, but this isn't as defining a characteristic as one might think.

Camera Obscura " a Scottish pop band comprised of Campbell, Gavin Dunbar, Carey Lander, Kenny McKeeve and Lee Thomson " practically invented tongue-in-cheek sadness. Take, for example, its video for "The Sweetest Thing," in which a stone-faced Campbell dons a fake mustache while offering, "When you're lucid, you're the sweetest thing / I would trade my mother to hear you sing."

It's likely this bizarre juxtaposition of happy and sad that endears fans to the band so closely, the improbable ability to cause heartbreak and dancing in one fell swoop. How else could one react to a group that, while releasing some of the most tragic and catchy songs in recent memory, dresses like the cast of "Mad Men," tweets incessantly and lists its members' favorite colors and animals on its Web site?

"Today, I listened to Tracyanne singing. She is good at it," reads a recent Twitter post from keyboard player Lander, the most frequent contributor to Camera Obscura's online repartee.
In a 2006 Pitchfork interview, Campbell proclaimed a waning dislike for technology, although as a band, Camera Obscura is heavily involved in its own Internet community.

"I'm quite prone to spending all day in front of a computer. I'll just lie on my bed with a computer all day," Lander said. "It's a bit of escapism " a way of being sociable without having to actually be with anybody. I think there's something good about having a bit of distance and a bit of mystery, but at the same time, I appreciate our fans. They want to write to us, and it doesn't take long to give someone a quick reply or a 'hello' or something. It can cheer somebody up. It's nice to acknowledge people. There's no point being snobby about it, I don't think."

The group dynamic seems to be that Campbell's profound melancholy is balanced out by the others' jovial, outgoing nature. It's not that Campbell never smiles, but she certainly doesn't seem to do it frequently " at least not publicly. This counterbalance is displayed as clearly in the arrangements of the songs.

"(Tracyanne) writes the tune and words and basic chords, and then she brings them to the group," Lander said. "From that point, the songs kind of go in any direction. We try to figure out what feeling the song should have " a try out the arrangement. It's really a band effort, I think."

This explains why a horn section and playful tambourine show up in a tune about an abandoned woman who wakes up envisioning her lover's face. Campbell admitted in an interview with UK music magazine NME that the lyrics on "My Maudlin Career" are autobiographical. Largely, the songs document the band's travel through the United States and a lover who traveled with and then left her.

While for some, this deeply personal and highly literal subject matter might provoke sensitivity when brought to discussion and dissection, Campbell and crew have years of friendship and bandmate-ship behind them.

Camera Obscura has been together for an impressive 14-year tenure thus far, and has slowly, steadily gained momentum with each of its four full-length releases.

"It's difficult playing this kind of music and never knowing how far you can get with it," Lander said. "There are some bands who struggle and give up, and other bands do brilliantly, and you wonder how they survive. There's always been an ambition, and we've gotten here, and we still seem to be gaining popularity, which is great. Hopefully, the future is still bright."

Despite having toured extensively on the heels of 2006's unironically titled "Let's Get Out of This Country," the members didn't consider the group a full-time gig until early last year.
"We just realized the other day it's been exactly a year since we started touring for ('My Maudlin Career')," Lander said. "We haven't been home for more than five weeks straight at any point. We've always longed to do this full-time and quit the annoying jobs on the side. When we signed to 4AD, we thought we'd give it a go."

For at least a few more months, Camera Obscura is on the road, making its first-ever trek through the American Midwest, including the University of Oklahoma.

"We're trying to cover some ground we haven't done before," Lander said. "I enjoy the kinds of shows where you just don't know what to expect of the town or the venue or the people."

Too busy to write on the road, the band has a hiatus planned to work on the next record.

"On the third (album), we were still a bit unsure of ourselves. By the fourth, we felt much better about playing and knowing how to put a record together " musically better and more confident," Lander said. "Hopefully that will carry on into the next album."

With a year's worth of road stories behind her, it's likely Campbell has plenty of fodder stored away for the songs.

As for what fans can expect, that's still up in the air, according to Campbell's crooning on the last album's title track: "I'll brace myself for the loneliness, say hello to feelings that I detest / This maudlin career must come to an end; I don't want to be sad again."

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