Last night: Camera Obscura at the Bluebird Theater

Camera Obscura, Agent Ribbons
Bluebird Theater
Monday, June 1, 2009
Better Than:

A vintage-clothes show without live music.

Okay, so that's a bit mean. But Camera Obscura did bring along fellow thrift-store doyennes Agent Ribbons as an opening act. The bands' shared love for '50s dresses is where the comparisons end; Sacramento-based Agent Ribbons played a set of songs pitched somewhere between Vivian Girls and the Dresden Dolls, a surprising but intuitive sweet spot that included some of the '60s pop feel of the former and a fair bit of the theatrical absurdism of the latter. (The three members all wear wigs -- blonde, brunette, redhead -- and go by the same last name, Ribbons.)

Vocalist/guitarist Natalie Ribbons made a fantastic frontwoman, her commanding alto leavened by the occasional (and delightful) squeak as she sang wry, twisty songs about birds and bees and boys with wooden lips. Drummer Lauren and violinist/cellist Naomi punctuated Natalie's songs with the right notes of melodrama, and then at the end of the set a lanky fellow wearing a salmon tuxedo and a bird mask joined the group to play tambourine. "Oh, this is our bird," said Natalie.

Okeydokey then.

Marijuana Deals Near You

"I'm glad to see none of you got struck by lightning on the way here," said Camera Obscura frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell with a smile as her band took the stage, a reference both to the rainy weather outside and to her latest masterpiece of swooning pop, "French Navy," a song that should by all rights be all over the radio now and forever. That song seems like a natural opener or closer to me, but the band chose instead to put it smack in the middle of the set. Opening with the title track from new album My Maudlin Career, the band stuck mostly to songs from that and previous album Let's Get Out of This Country, with a couple older treats thrown in.

I may have leaned a bit too much on Campbell in our interview about her supposedly melancholy personality (though, in my defense, she has mentioned it in at least a few interviews recently); on stage, she seems nothing at all like the kind of navel-gazing twee kid she may very well have been ten years ago. The woman who has admitted to puking from nerves even at rehearsals back in her early days charmed us with her Scottish-accented banter, and spent several songs stifling a laugh after keyboardist Carey Lander mentioned the "jazzy cigarettes" someone was smoking. ("Maybe they're scented candles," suggested guitarist Kenny McKeeve.)

More importantly, Campbell's progress has been the band's progress; Campbell's been a great songwriter from the start, but not until Country did she learn to really sing instead of just coo, and the band -- perhaps helped by producer Jari Haapalainen -- finally became the grand orchestral-pop outfit it always wanted to be. On stage, Campbell and the band bring that new confidence even to old songs, and the difference is astounding. The highlight of last night's set wasn't "Navy," or "Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken" or even "If Looks Could Kill," though those were all excellent; no, it was "Books Written For Girls," a quiet country tune from second album Underachievers Please Try Harder, that showed how far Campbell has come. Her old delivery had a plaintive charm, but last night, as the band accompanied her quietly and minimally, she put her voice on its clearest display of the evening, and her command of dynamics and timbre put the song -- already a good one -- on a level I wouldn't have thought possible.

"Lloyd" and "Navy," by contrast, suffered just a bit for missing their studio trappings; the swelling strings, multitracked vocals and general Spector-worship don't make the songs any better, but they are a big part of what makes them so immediately arresting, so oh-my-god-you-have-to-hear-this-song-right-this-second radio-friendly, dammit, if only an FM station would play them (although I saw a booth for Indie 101.5 outside, so maybe they do). But it was good to hear them anyway. And "If Looks Could Kill" was a fantastic good time, maybe even exceeding the already rapturous album version in infectious energy.

The band closed with "Razzle Dazzle Rose," the song's hazy rubato ending providing the opportunity for the players to do the rock-band thing, all furious strumming and cymbal bashing, although still in their characteristically tasteful manner. (Campbell even knelt in front of her amp with her guitar (!) but backed off before she got too noisy.) It was quite adorable.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: Um...yeah. I am deeply, madly, hopelessly in love with Tracyanne Campbell. Tracyanne, if you ever read this, take me to Glasgow and marry me.
Random Detail: Naomi Ribbons's amp had a lovely rose print on its mesh grille (terminology escapes me).
By The Way: The Bluebird was damn near full last night, even toward the end of Agent Ribbons's set, which is always nice to see on a rainy Monday night. These bands deserved it.

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