Indie Round-Up: Camera Obscura, Art Brut, and I Was a King

Here are three terrific new records that demonstrate just how great– and varied– the indie pop genre can be. The first two are already doing well with the indie set, having won raves from Pitchfork and the like. The third one hasn’t quite caught on yet, and perhaps it never will, but it’s their loss– it just might be the best of the three albums here.

my-maudlin-careerCamera Obscura – My Maudlin Career

“I don’t believe in true love, anyway,” sang Tracyanne Campbell, on her band’s show-stopping 2006 LP Let’s Get Out of This Country— and of course, we didn’t believe her any more then than we do in 2009, when she tells us that her “maudlin career is over.” Truth is, no other band is quite as spellbinding and romantic, as utterly swoon-worthy as Camera Obscura; their music could convince the most jaded cynic that true love is real, and for that reason, let’s hope the band’s career is only beginning.

And if their new album, My Maudlin Career, is perhaps a tiny bit less instantly-infatuating as the last one, it’s still a ravishing, passionate work, the stuff of which major musical crushes are born. An incomparably blissful marriage of beach music, country, doo-wop, and girl-group harmonies to diarist sincerity and theater-major melodrama, this is nothing if not a sequel to Let’s Get Out of This Country, but so what? Here the band offers subtle refinements of an album that didn’t really need refining to begin with, and the Belle & Sebastian comparisons that have long hounded them have never been more irrelevant: Camera Obscura sounds more confident and comfortable with themselves than ever. If Country was their break-through, Maudlin is the victory lap where they make it clear that they’ve carved for themselves a signature sound– and, with it and great albums like this, a legacy.

If anything, the album is bigger and bolder, but also darker. Tracyanne falls in love with a sailor and sees her reflection in the moonlit waters– and that’s just in the first song!– while the songs are supported by lavish, increasingly complex and integral string arrangements. The upbeat songs are less interesting here– there’s nothing as immediately memorable as “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken” or “Let’s Get Out of This Country”– but the band shows growth on their ballads, especially the striking, painfully wounded tracks “Away with Murder” and “James.” Love hurts, as they say, but romantic longing may never have felt sweeter.

Art Brut – Art Brut vs. Satan

For their third album, Art Brut celebrates The Replacements, takes potshots at Brian Eno and U2, and oh yeah, records with art-brut-art-brut-vs-satanindie godfather Frank Black in the producer’s chair. In other words: If you’re looking for something arty and esoteric, you’re looking at the wrong band. Art Brut finds their footing somewhere between punk, indie, and garage rock, and, just in case their love of raw, jagged riffs and full-band energy isn’t obvious from the record’s careening momentum and rough-and-ready sound, they’ve recorded another one of their meta-songs to spell it out for you– this time, it’s called “Slap Dash for No Cash,” and it’s a Valentine to those bands that record lo-fi, lo-budget, high-speed rock and roll without a lot of studio overhead or rehearsal time. It turns out to be a perfect album that marks something of a return to form after It’s a Bit Complicated, which may have been just a shade too fussy; and if the Frank Black collaboration isn’t quite a boon in the way you might think it would be, it’s a boon nevertheless: He may not put Art Brut in touch with their inner-Pixies, but he does keep them true to their inner Art Brut, preserving their enthusiasm and passion in all its ragged glory.

Art Brut isn’t a band you listen to in hopes of being surprised; if anything, they’re a band that proves just how utterly thrilling a time-tested formula can be, as their sound is nothing if not drunk on the spirit that’s kept rock and roll alive and well for all these years. Still, there might be something just a tad eyebrow-raising about Eddie Argos’ songwriting. As usual, his vocals are closer to spoken-word than actual singing, but his witty, cheerfuly absurd narratives about music, drinking, romantic pitfalls, and general loserdom have a surprising new twist here: In a way, the album paints a picture of growing up and accepting maturity versus remaining in perpetual adolescence, beginning with an anthem of pathetic, unrepentent alcoholism but ending on a note that’s just a tad more remorseful. Between those songs, Argos celebrates those childhood pleasures that remain with you throughout life (“DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshakes”), ponders growing up within the context of not knowing how to drive (“The Passenger”), and cleverly sends up teenage neuroses (“Am I Normal?”). That these songs have a lot of humor goes without saying, but they’ve also got a lot of heart, which is what makes the whole thing an exhuberant good time, even when Art Brut squares off with the Prince of Darkness on “Demons Out!”

i-was-a-kingI Was a King – I Was a King

The lead singer of I Was a King is named Frode Stromstads– and what’s amazing is, that’s not even the most awesome thing about them. Sure, this Norwegian rock outfit wears their influences on their sleeves, but damn if they don’t have great taste. Imagine: The power chords and sugar-rush hooks of Teenage Fanclub or New Pornographers, wed to the noisy, ramshackle production of early Pavement and filled with wicked guitar freakouts worthy of Hendrix. Not exactly what you’d expect from a group with close ties to Scandanavia’s native Christian music scene, but then, the only evidence of religiosity that you’ll hear on this terrific album is a cover of “Hard Luck and Bad News,” written by Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman. Here’s an album that’s drunk on big hooks, smart songwriting, and rock-god guitar heroics– a perfect shot of power pop madness, just in time for summer.

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