Music Reviews
Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura

Look to the East, Look to the West

Merge Records

It’s been ten years since Camera Obscura last released new music. They went on a long hiatus after founding keyboardist Carey Lander died from bone cancer in 2015. It took a long time for the band to regroup after such a tragic loss. Eventually, they found Donna Maciocia, who joined them on keyboards. They were finally drawn back to the stage when Belle & Sebastian invited them to play their 2019 Boaty Weekender cruise festival.

For Look to the East, Look to the West, the band took a step backwards. They stripped their sound down to the basics: no horns, no strings, no sweeteners. They also reunited with their Let’s Get Out of This Country producer, Jari Haaplainen. They even ditched the reverb that was a constant companion on earlier records.

I’ve always been a fan of Camera Obscura’s mid to uptempo songs, so I was put off at first by how many really slow songs are on the album. The sparse piano and vocals of “Sleepwalking” took awhile to grow on me. Then the opening line, “They told you it was coke but it was ketamine,” hooked me. Like all Camera Obscura records, it really pays to listen to what Tracyanne Campbell is saying. The next-to-last song is another slow song for piano and vocals. “Sugar Almonds” addresses the loss of Carey Lander directly.

“We’re Going to Make it in a Man’s World” was co-written with Maciocia for director Margaret Salmon’s film, Icarus. The song blends elements of doo-wop and country on an anthem to female empowerment. In exchange for using the song, Salmon took the cover photo for the album (featuring the same model who was on the cover of Camera Obscura’s first album).

My favorite song on Look to the East, Look to the West is the upbeat “Pop Goes Pop.” I really like the Booker T. organ playing against a Chet Atkins guitar riff. This is an album that demands repeated listenings. The clever lyrics and subtle musical phrases don’t jump out like a Beyoncé song. If you give them some time to grow on you, Camera Obscura always rewards.

Camera Obscura


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