Camera Obscura back, focusing on the melancholy

| Wednesday, July 16, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

When you make pop music that isn't all that popular — not as big as, say, Katy Perry — what do you call it?

For the classic pop purists of Camera Obscura, who visit Mr. Small's Theater in Millvale on July 23, it's not complicated.

“It's pop music, melancholic pop music,” says Lee Thomson, drummer for the Glasgow, Scotland-based band, on the phone from London. “It's not shiny and bright. I'd say it's kind of like the pop music your gran would listen to. It's kind of old-fashioned. It's not too upbeat. There's always a tinge of sadness and introspection.”

Aside from a talent for self-deprecation, there's definitely a retro element in the indie-pop band's sonic arsenal. They clearly love the songs of the '60s.

The city of Glasgow also seems to crank out great pure-pop bands like they used to crank out seafaring vessels, from Donovan to Orange Juice, Franz Ferdinand, Belle and Sebastian, and Chvrches.

“I don't really know why,” Thomson says. “I think, in Glasgow, there's a tradition, a certain sound of guitar — on the west coast of Scotland, people love Neil Young, the Byrds and the Velvet Underground.”

Camera Obscura has been busy recently, after a five-year hiatus. Their most recent record, “Desire Lines,” doesn't do anything new or different — chipping away, using their tried-and-true formula for perfectly catchy, literate, winsome love songs, with a touch of sadness (and sometimes more than a touch).

“We had to take a break after ‘My Maudlin Career' (2009),” Thomson says. “Carey (Lander, piano, organ, vocals) became ill and needed treatment. Between illness and people having babies — there's been a few of those little guys who have popped out. That put off recording for awhile.”

Camera Obscura been making music since 1996, which is sort of an eternity in the music business. The main constant has always been singer/songwriter Tracyanne Campbell's crystalline voice and unerring ear for melody.

Of course, a drummer doesn't get a lot of showy solos or big rock moments in a band like Camera Obscura. But so many of its songs are buoyed by a certain propulsive, bouncy rhythm, that it's possible Thomson is the band's secret weapon.

He disavows this, however.

“No, not at all,” he says. “It's all about Tracyanne and her melodies. She will write a bit of melody, or a more fully formed song, and give it to the band to work out together. There's no real ego in the band anymore, where someone wants to be louder than anyone else. It's a nice mix of people playing together and listening together. I think that's why it can be described as light — people hold back, essentially.”

As one might imagine for a band called Camera Obscura, film is a major influence on the band. This spills over into their many relentlessly charming music videos (“Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken” and “French Navy” in particular).

Thomson cites the cinema of British working-class filmmakers like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach and the American indie-film pioneer John Cassavetes as big influences.

“That kind of naturalistic style of filmmaking,” he says. “Down-at-the-heel sorts of film, more about the dialogue and characters. Mumble-core, naturalistic, miserable.”

They've had their songs used in a number of movies and TV shows. Since nobody's really selling many albums anymore, this is how mid-sized bands pay the bills, along with heavy touring.

“We tend to get used in ‘chick flicks,' unfortunately,” Thomson says. “It brings in money, so I'm not complaining. TV in America is what we're used for, like ‘Gilmore Girls' and ‘Girls.' A lot of indie filmmakers making a first film, shorts. If something looks well-made, we'll say yes.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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