The great open secret of bubblegum pop is that behind its easy-breezy sound hides some of the most deeply sad and awkward feelings in song: persistent and disorienting melancholy, profound heartbreak and isolation, anger, alienation, loneliness, abject despair. The great power of bubblegum pop though, is that its music lifts these feelings up weightless into the air, making the yawning expanse between appearance and reality simultaneously more affecting and easier to swallow, the way looking straight ahead at your hands makes you forget high altitudes when you’re climbing a ladder or a mountain.
I love this contrast. It weeds out those who miss it, and doubly draws in those who get it. Not that this kind of pop seems to mind being misunderstood. It’s happy to party with the untroubled for the length of a song, and seems defensive toward over-analysis by its too-serious defenders.
The same could be said for the members of Camera Obscura. Okay, not that I know them personally… But I do “know” them in the all-important way that a fan does who feels (in a somewhat less sociopathic version of a stalker) that he/she alone grasps their inner meaning. Also, it helps that I’ve seen this endearing little short, parts 1 and 2. While their wary, detached personae (particularly that of Tracyanne Campbell, their lead singer) seem at odds with the fiercely attached passions of their lyrics, to the know-it-alls who really understand, ie. me, it all makes perfect sense.
At their sold-out show at the Somerville Theater in Somerville, MA this past Friday, it was hard to tell who if any were over-analyzing the band, but there sure was a lot of vigorous appreciation on the part of a surprisingly wide-ranging demographic. Call me exclusive, but I’d expected more bookish-looking girls and their solemn, cardiganed boyfriends. The first of many exceptions I noticed though, was a pleasantly drunk looking guy in the beer line who was determined to share his enthusiasm with a red-vested theater employee — all while trying to remove his own t-shirt from under a newly purchased Camera Obscura t-shirt, both of which he was still wearing. “Are you having as much fun as I am?” he asked. I couldn’t hear what the vested man mumbled, but it prompted the t-shirt contortionist to cajole him with a “Really?! Aw, come on!” On the other hand, the people seated to my right seemed to be a very up-for-anything mom and dad with their teenage daughter. And near the end, a long-haired hippie lady in a cutoff t-shirt (apparently in her mid-40s) was moved to run to the front and do a swaying dance by the speaker stacks. So bravo, Camera Obscura: you’ve escaped the niche market.
Predictably though, nothing seemed to shake the band off-course as they politely delivered a set of pretty, finger-snapping laments with a firmly reined-in passion. Not even the odd cry of “We love Scotland!!” from one irrepressible audience member, answered dryly by Tracyanne with “As do we, and we’ll soon be returning there.” But despite this cool reticence, Campbell’s reedy, yearning voice offered a glimpse at an inner world of messy and fragile emotion. “This is our first seated show on the tour,” she confided, after a few songs and a long silence, “so we’re a wee bit scared too.”
I was prepared enough for the melancholy sting of the songs off their new album, My Maudlin Career, but when they unexpectedly pulled out a tender version of Springsteen‘s “Tougher Than The Rest”, Tracyanne’s plainly contradictory delivery had me choking back tears. Although I’m a fan of his songs, I’ve never been much for The Boss’ gritty, eager-to-please voice. But Camera Obscura’s version seemed to suit them strangely better, this bold declaration brought down to a confident whisper from an unlikely girl. Because what does The Boss have to prove, really? He’s manly, unabashed, and a raging success. There’s no distance for him to cross. But for Camera Obscura it seems, the water is wide, their toughness is hard-won and their victory twice as sweet.
[There’s two more dates in their US tour: tonight in Columbus, OH and tomorrow in Millvale, PA]