Back in Focus

Shaken by cancer and complacency, Camera Obscura needed a change. They found it in Portland.

No one could ever mistake Desire Lines as anything but an album by Camera Obscura. All the identifiers are there: melodies meshing the chirp of '60s radio pop and '80s post-punk devilry, and the sparkling, instantly recognizable vocals of frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell. In many ways, though, this isn't your typical LP by the Scottish quintet. Gone are the dense string and horn arrangements that turned the group's otherwise straightforward tunes into Phil Spector-like layer cakes. In their place is...well, not much: just lots of open space to stretch out and curl up into.

The idea wasn't to render Camera Obscura unrecognizable from its previous work. These slight adjustments to the template were the product of a thoughtful band that was at a perfect place to shake things up a bit. The group has been working at a steady clip since its 2001 debut, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi. Each successive album proved more popular than the last, bringing more demand for live performances. By the time it laid off the gas pedal, following months of touring in support of 2009's My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura was spent. Then, in 2011, keyboardist Carey Lander was diagnosed with cancer, news that left her bandmates reeling and reassessing their priorities.

"I think it strengthened our resolve to get on with things," says guitarist Kenny McKeeve. "As people's lives started to develop and unpleasant things happened, we started to appreciate what we've got. It made us want to be back around each other and get on with it."

The first step the band took was to break out of the creative groove it had remained in for its last two albums, both of which were recorded in Sweden with producer Jari Haapalainen. Using a recommendation from friend and fan M. Ward, the group ended up calling upon Tucker Martine and his Portland studio tucked away amid warehouses along North Interstate Avenue.

"I always have to chuckle when artists whose work I really love and who I think I'd love to work  with call and tell me they want to do something different," says Martine, who's previously worked with R.E.M., Sufjan Stevens and Spoon, among others.

Again, the changes he and Camera Obscura chose weren't over-the-top shifts but simple and elegant moves that helped bring out the band's sense of collectiveness.

"They decided not to do the thing they usually do," Martine says, "which was to call in lots of outside help to finish the songs. That meant some band members were in roles they weren't used to being in. I wanted them to feel like this record was the band, not the band plus a bunch of other people's ideas."

As well, the goal was to help open up the new songs as much as possible.

"We didn't want everything so in your face," McKeeve says. "We wanted gaps and pauses or moments where not much is happening beyond a keyboard part and some vocals, or just minimal guitar parts. Tucker gave us the space to experiment with some sounds and to tweak the settings and knobs a bit more."

Desire Lines still has the lush, bucolic feel that has marked Camera Obscura's work from its formation in 1996, but with more keyboard melodies floating to the surface and some especially lovely backing vocals by Neko Case and My Morning Jacket's Jim James.

With this album completed, the band is now considering how to handle its future with more caution than it might have in the past. All the members have families to consider, and the group has to face a new but welcome challenge now that Campbell is pregnant with her first child.

"That's going to change things for everybody," McKeeve says. "After we finish this tour of the states, we're going to take a little more time out. Then we have to decide when we might be back touring and if we can find ways to make it possible with children in tow or not. The Camera Obscura Kindergarten would be a great thing if we could put it in place, but the practicality of that is a long ways off.” 

SEE IT: Camera Obscura plays Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., with Marissa Nadler, on Friday, June 21. 8 pm. $17.50 advance, $20 day of shows. All ages.

Willamette Week's journalism is funded, in part, by our readers. Your help supports local, independent journalism that informs, educates, and engages our community. Become a WW supporter.