Camera Obscura has a very defined sonic aesthetic, and doesn’t deviate much from this sound from album to album. In the Scottish band’s case, this comfort zone combines wispy ’80s indie-pop jangle with ornate ’60s-pop fussiness and a lyrical outlook that tends toward Charlie Brown—in other words, a somewhat wary view of life where the other shoe’s always dropping and the football’s never there to dropkick.
Camera Obscura’s fifth album, Desire Lines, is certainly of a piece with the rest of its catalog. A 30-second instrumental string intro segues right into the reedy vintage-soul lullaby “This Is Love (Feels Alright),” and there’s plenty of string-driven pop (the schmaltzy “Break It To You Gently”), vocal heartbreak (“William’s Heart”), and deeply ambivalent songs about romance (the early Smiths-like “Fifth In Line To The Throne”) spread throughout. Yet such consistency doesn’t mean Camera Obscura is creatively stagnant. After working with producer Jari Haapalainen on their last two albums (2006’s Let’s Get Out Of This Country and 2009’s My Maudlin Career), the group tapped Tucker Martine (Decemberists, Spoon) for Desire Lines. Martine’s production style adds some welcome warmth to the band’s music—most notably on the danceable ’60s throwback “Do It Again” and the upbeat “Troublemaker”—and his attention to detail is sublime; the strings on “Cri Du Coeur” are delicate and fine, while the horn section on “I Missed Your Party” adds smoky ambience. The band takes some small, successful leaps forward stylistically as well: The brisk “Every Weekday”—which has very subtle backing vocals from Neko Case and a cautiously optimistic tone—has breezy tropical rhythms, and the folky title track blooms with organ and pedal steel.
Admittedly, it takes a few spins to appreciate Desire Lines; unlike previous Camera Obscura efforts, its songs aren’t as immediate or arresting. The album also has a few sleepy spots (“New Year’s Resolution,” “I Missed Your Party”), which causes it to drag on occasion. Still, Desire Lines is the rare record that sounds comfortable and familiar, but yet isn’t derivative.