Camera Obscura

Look to the East, Look to the West, the new album by Camera Obscura, is a revelation. The Tracyanne Campbell-led outfit, reuniting with producer Jari Haapalainen (Let’s Get Out of This Country, My Maudlin Career), have crafted an album that simultaneously recalls why longtime fans have ferociously loved them for decades while also being their most sophisticated effort to date.

It is also the most hard-fought album of Camera Obscura’s career. Following the 2015 passing of founding keyboardist and friend Carey Lander (to whom the penultimate track “Sugar Almond” is addressed), the band went into an extended hiatus. They remained in contact, but their status was uncertain until they announced their return, having been invited to perform as part of Belle & Sebastian’s 2019 Boaty Weekender cruise festival, along with a pair of sold-out warm-up shows in Glasgow. Donna Maciocia (keys and vocals) joined founding members Kenny McKeeve (guitar and vocals), Gavin Dunbar (bass), and Lee Thomson (drums and percussion) for those shows and has since become a regular songwriting partner of Campbell’s.

Recorded in the same room where Queen wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Look to the East, Look to the West feels big, a widescreen reframing of Camera Obscura’s sound that, paradoxically, saw the band go back to basics—there are no string or brass arrangements, with more emphasis placed on piano, synthesizers, Hammond organ, and drum machines, and, perhaps most strikingly, the group have dropped the veil of reverb that characterized their previous albums. The tinges of country and soul that give Camera Obscura’s baroque take on pop music its bittersweet edge have never been more apparent—guitars shimmer into the distance, keys haunt, and Campbell’s voice searches for the heart, reflecting on love, loss, and the passage of time.

Lead single “Big Love” relishes in the space between country rock and prog, a pining break-up anthem featuring the soaring pedal steel of Tim Davidson. It’s a Nashville Sound heartbreaker, tackling the complexity of wanting to rekindle a bad relationship with Campbell’s uncanny ability to render the past: “It was a big love, she said / That’s why it took ten years to get her out of her head,” she begins.

“We’re Going to Make It in a Man’s World” was co-written with Maciocia for filmmaker Margaret Salmon’s 2021 film Icarus (After Amelia). (Salmon, in turn, shot Look to the East, Look to the West’s cover photography featuring Fiona Morrison, who was on the cover of Camera Obscura’s debut, Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi.). Ironic and sincere, the two navigate the reality of being women in the music industry, somehow floating over Davidson’s pedal steel and Maciocia’s keys. “The Light Nights” is a swooning song propelled by a western shuffle and killer guitar, striking a balance between a particularly good honky-tonk joint’s jukebox and a lost gem of California pop music waiting to be discovered in a 7-inch bin.

Camera Obscura’s uncanny dexterity in juxtaposing genres, moods, and emotions is most keenly felt in opener “Liberty Print,” an elegy that breaks itself open over a crushing synth line. It’s a daringly constructed song, showcasing Campbell’s command of lyrical narrative that allows space for grief within the structure of pop music.

Look to the East, Look to the West is the sound of a band that has grown more confident in its sound and purpose than ever. It is Camera Obscura at their best and most evocative, an album that completely rearranges the listener’s emotional core, leaving them sad and exhilarated at the same time. Camera Obscura’s catalog is replete with songs people point to as life-changing, songs that will stick with them all their lives. Look to the East, Look to the West has 11 of them; take your pick.

with Camera Obscura, Photo Ops
Crescent Ballroom
Wed June 12, 2024 8:00 pm (Doors: 7:00 pm )
21 and up
Tickets