Camera Obscura returns to Atlanta with a kaleidoscope of songs and sounds

Scottish indie pop band Camera Obscura returns to Atlanta for a June 17 performance at Variety Playhouse. Group members are (from left) Gavin Dunbar, Kenny McKeeve, Tracyanne Campbell, Donna Maciocia and Lee Thomson. 
(Courtesy of Robert Perry)

Credit: Robert Perry

Credit: Robert Perry

Scottish indie pop band Camera Obscura returns to Atlanta for a June 17 performance at Variety Playhouse. Group members are (from left) Gavin Dunbar, Kenny McKeeve, Tracyanne Campbell, Donna Maciocia and Lee Thomson. (Courtesy of Robert Perry)

From 2001 to 2013, Scottish indie pop band Camera Obscura released its first five albums, making a particular commercial and critical leap with third record “Let’s Get Out of This Country” (2006). Buoyed by a mix of twang and jangle in the instrumentation and frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell’s upfront, well-crafted lyrics covering love, heartbreak and everything in between, the band built a sizable following on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere around the world.

Before the making of 2013′s “Desire Lines” album, keyboard player Carey Lander was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a cancer that later returned and took her life in 2015. Devastated, the Glaswegians (Campbell, guitarist Kenny McKeeve, bassist Gavin Dunbar and drummer Lee Thomson), while never making an announcement of any sort, quietly went on hiatus.

Then, in 2019, Glasgow friends (and recent Atlanta performers) Belle & Sebastian invited Camera Obscura to return and join them for Boaty Weekender, a performance cruise with other indie rock bands. That turned out to be the right place and time for the group’s well-received reappearance. Donna Maciocia, keyboard player for fellow Scottish band Amplifico, joined Camera Obscura for the Weekender and has since become a full-time member.

Following COVID lockdown-related delays, the quintet recorded the tremendous and understandably critically praised new album “Look to the East, Look to the West,” a release with a variety of sounds but none of the orchestral elements common to some of their best-known songs, such as 2009′s “French Navy.”

Camera Obscura, with Carey Lander (left) then on keyboards, played the Variety Playhouse in 2009. AJC file 2009

Credit: Robb D. Cohen, www.robbsphotos.com

icon to expand image

Credit: Robb D. Cohen, www.robbsphotos.com

“It’s just been really nice,” said Dunbar about the group’s return. He joined McKeeve on a recent call with the AJC from a tour stop in Minnesota. “From the word go people were happy we were doing something. When we played the Boaty Weekender that was the kick-start. And new folk have discovered us as well. It’s been really positive. We’re really privileged to be able to do it again.”

The rejuvenated band returns to Atlanta on Monday, June 17, for a performance at Variety Playhouse. Thomson was unable to break work commitments for the monthlong trek, so Louis Abbott of Glasgow band Admiral Fallow is filling in on drums for the tour.

“Look to the East, Look to the West” marks other returns, as well, with Swedish musician back to produce the band for the third time and North Carolina label Merge Records releasing the album (Merge also handled the North American distribution of 2003′s “Underachievers Please Try Harder” and its successor “Let’s Get Out of This Country”).

Working with Haapalainen again was key for the group. “I think we felt that it would be better to have Jari back with us,” McKeeve said. “We knew he would be sensitive to what we’d been through — he knew and loved Carey as well. Having him there — it’s a safe pair of hands, but not a boring pair of hands.

“He certainly didn’t want to go back to that big wall of sound,” the guitarist added. “He didn’t want to be bored, so he worked really hard to make sure we got it right.”

"Look to the East, Look to the West," Camera Obscura's sixth album, was produced by Swedish musician Jari Haapalainen, who's worked with the group previously.
(Courtesy of Robert Perry)

Credit: Robert Perry

icon to expand image

Credit: Robert Perry

Campbell’s soulful voice and lyrical acumen unite a record that’s a true sonic kaleidoscope. Single “Big Love” is up-tempo with a quirky, country-ish feel, aided by guest (and Campbell’s husband) Tim Davidson on pedal steel guitar. “Denon” has a jangly, sunshine sound (“I think of you often and smile” sings Campbell), ready for a summer singalong. Probably the biggest surprise is “Baby Huey (Hard Times),” with a drum machine and synthesizers rolling up against strummed acoustic guitar. A love letter to the fans onboard for the Boaty Weekender, the song is also reminiscent of the best Swedish pop, such as producer Haapalainen’s own Bear Quartet or maybe the Radio Dept.

“The variety is one of the things that always comes when working with Jari, because he likes to be challenged,” Dunbar said. “He came in at an earlier point and was doing a bit more preproduction work, right from rehearsals. We embraced the opportunity to have it be a proper journey through the album — you get to hear different soundscapes, really.”

Notably, there are two ballads that mainly feature just Campbell’s vocals and Maciocia’s piano, the twisting story “Sleepwalking” and a beautiful tribute to Lander, “Sugar Almond.” The singer’s voice is in extra fine form on both, and the latter is a simple but emotional nod to her close friend with “eyes as gray as Glasgow skies.” It’s as wonderful a tribute as anyone could wish for.

Hearing the demo of “Sugar Almond” for the first time was “brutal,” Dunbar acknowledged. “It’s beautiful and it’s emotive, and it sums up our thoughts about Carey right across the board,” the bassist added. “When we all heard it I think we were all pretty taken aback, because there’s no doubt about what it’s about.”

Camera Obscura keyboard player Donna Maciocia enjoys a studio moment during recording of the group's new album "Look to the East, Look to the West."
(Courtesy of Merge Records)

Credit: Handout

icon to expand image

Credit: Handout

McKeeve noted they recorded a full-band version, and another with backing vocals from Maciocia, but agreed it was best left stark — piano and lead vocals only.

Camera Obscura recently toured the UK, and at press time the North American tour had just launched and was off to a fantastic start. “It’s the first time we’ve done a tour for 10 years,” Dunbar said. “We don’t want to overwhelm people with songs they aren’t familiar with yet.”

Discussing the balance of playing new material alongside vintage tunes, McKeeve cited being “able to sandwich the new songs in between the old classics,” adding that “I think people have been listening [to the new material] already so that’s very heartwarming. We’ve been really lucky that the first few [North American] shows went really well.”

The band has some festivals lined up for this summer, including an appearance with their pals Belle & Sebastian at the Glasgow Weekender, the latest in a series of B&S-organized events and follow-up to the Boaty Weekender.

“It’s really nice to play because it’s almost an anniversary version of the original Bowlie Weekender [in 1999], which was one of our first-ever gigs,” Dunbar said. “It feels like a nice chance to put Glasgow on the map.”

The band is still playing by ear what happens beyond that, feeling grateful for such a busy 2024. In the meantime, the Scots are excited about their country’s appearance in the European Soccer Championship tournament (the opening match against Germany falls on McKeeve’s birthday, Friday, June 14) and a performance in Little Five Points.

“We’re looking forward it,” Dunbar concluded. “Atlanta’s always been one of the places that’s treated us really well. The crowds have always been great.”


CONCERT PREVIEW

Camera Obscura with special guest Photo Ops

Monday, June 17. Doors open at 7 p.m., show begins at 8 p.m. All ages. Tickets, $30-$35. Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. NE, Atlanta. variety-playhouse.com