Camera Obscura Go Subtle on Look to the East, Look to the West

The Scottish band’s first album since 2013 is more subdued than their earlier work.

Music Reviews Camera Obscura
Camera Obscura Go Subtle on Look to the East, Look to the West

Camera Obscura came right at you on a string of albums in the early 2000s with bright melodies that were at once effervescent and gloriously plaintive. Many of the songs from Let’s Get Out of This Country in 2006 and especially My Maudlin Career in 2009 took up residence in your brain and refused to leave. The Scottish group takes a more subdued approach on their latest, Look to the East, Look to the West.

Look to the East, Look to the West is Camera Obscura’s first album since Desire Lines in 2013, and since the death of keyboardist and singer Carey Lander from an aggressive form of bone cancer in 2015. No wonder the band stayed dormant for a few years, which is when singer Tracyanne Campbell teamed up with Danny Coughlan to record a self-titled album as Tracyanne & Danny. Camera Obscura reconvened in 2018 for a handful of gigs and, after a pandemic-elongated delay, have finally returned with Look to the East, Look to the West.

Although the band retains a knack for lush songs that are at once dreamy and catchy, the 11 tracks here are subtler than in years past. That’s understandable: Everyone is older now, and the youthful fervor that fueled the band’s earlier work doesn’t burn quite as hot. You can hear it in the music: In place of the bold string charts and sweeping orchestrations, Look to the East, Look to the West goes for a more basic sound that favors keyboards, particularly organ and piano.

The resulting vibe is less insistent. Rather than park these songs on your doorstep, it’s more like Camera Obscura have issued a standing invitation to dig beneath the surface if you want to. There’s plenty to find. Warm pedal steel guitar slides around underneath a marching beat and grainy electric guitar on lead single “Big Love,” while keyboards and bass lock into a vintage-style soul groove topped with fat guitar chords on “Denon” (which does feature subtle strings in the background).

Campbell sounds as wistful and moonstruck as ever. Her voice wavers between fragile confidence and haughty longing on opener “Liberty Print,” which scrolls by like an indie-pop Jane Austen gala. Campbell offers a languid sense of determination on “We’re Going to Make It in a Man’s World,” where atmospheric synthesizers drift past the wordless vocals that carry the song. Elsewhere, on “Sugar Almond,” she simply sounds sad. The song is an elegy for Lander, and the minor-key piano part and Campbell’s aching vocal hint at the wrenching depths of losing a bandmate and, more importantly, a friend. It’s no small thing that Camera Obscura found their way back from that—not every band could (or should). It turns out that subtlety suits them, and if Look to the East, Look to the West isn’t as immediately grabby as past albums were, these songs are nonetheless built to last.

Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013. His work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and Pitchfork, among other publications. He writes Freak Scene, a newsletter about music in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut.

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