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Tracyanne & Danny - Tracyanne & Danny Music Album Reviews

Tracyanne & Danny - Tracyanne & Danny Music Album Reviews

Five years after Camera Obscura’s last album, Tracyanne Campbell returns with a new musical partner and a more mannered, slightly cautious sound, but her voice is as singular as ever.

Camera Obscura are synonymous with the lonesome voice of Tracyanne Campbell, so it’s a little startling to remember that their identity formed around duets. Near the turn of the millennium, they were a cuddly new indie-pop band with two singers, a woman and a man. This was in the Glasgow of Belle and Sebastian, to whom Camera Obscura were incessantly compared, especially because Stuart Murdoch cosigned their early efforts. Even when the two bands’ paths diverged, they ran parallel. In 2002, as Belle and Sebastian shed their female side, Isobel Campbell (no relation to Tracyanne), Camera Obscura shed their male side, John Henderson, who left after finishing their beloved second album, Underachievers Please Try Harder.

Both bands went on to play hopscotch with pedigreed indie labels on both sides of the Atlantic—Merge, Matador, Rough Trade, 4AD—but they finally differentiated themselves. As Murdoch veered toward writing showtunes for imaginary musicals, Campbell, amid some country-and-western and orch-pop dalliances, tuned her band’s purring motor to run a golden-age rock ‘n’ soul chassis. Camera Obscura ceased to resemble Belle and Sebastian. Their new touchstones were old: doo-wop and shag music, Phil Spector and Motown, AM radio and Time-Life oldies. Their pert, glittering, 20th-century citations centered on a singer whose dulcet tone and willful naivete had filled in with something wiser and steelier over the years, and who had developed a surer compass than Murdoch as a songwriter.

All this history comes flooding back with the self-titled debut of Campbell’s new project, Tracyanne & Danny. It’s not just that the names-and-an-ampersand thing calls to mind Camera Obscura’s former doppelgangers. With Campbell once again overshadowing a male singer who valiantly hangs in there, it’s like Underachievers Please Try Harder but with better production, sharper musicians, and time-tempered tastes—an older musician answering her own youthful edict: “I did.” Campbell still sings about insecurity, but it’s been a long time since the music sounded insecure. If this is full circle, it ends somewhere higher than where it began, like a spiral staircase—one that passed through tragedy as it rose.

It’s easy to imagine why Campbell, to get back to music, might need to return to the start. Camera Obscura went out on a high note for listeners and a low one for the band. As 2013’s excellent Desire Lines was being recorded, Carey Lander, their keyboardist and Campbell’s best friend, had cancer. She finished the album and died in 2015. Tracyanne & Danny represent Campbell’s relatively low-key comeback. The Danny in question is Bristol’s Danny Coughlan, who creates fastidious pastiches of music from dusty 45s as Crybaby. He and Campbell became friends around the time of Desire Lines, and friendship and music seem inextricable to her. “Our friendship is not a replacement, but Carey left a space as big as it possibly could be, and now I have a best pal again,” she told The Daily Record. “I think she would have been so glad I got off my arse and didn’t mope about. I think she would have loved the music.”

If Tracyanne & Danny harks back to Campbell’s past in one way, it seems to leap into the future in another. There’s an alternate universe where Camera Obscura continued uninterrupted and made an album like this 10 years after Desire Lines instead of five, as if grief accelerated a certain kind of maturation. There’s no turbocharged rush like “French Navy” that really stands out from the mannered material. The tempos are slower, the arrangements broader, the indie-rock pep recessed. “Home & Dry” sets the pace, its trotting melody conveying us through trim passages of tickling guitar reverb: a little mariachi here, a little soft jazz there, the orchestration fluid and mild. The album is discreetly crammed with producer Edwyn Collins’ vintage gear, with glockenspiel and woodblocks, piano and horns, strings and winds blowing across the songs like weather. The pedal Collins used on “A Girl Like You” is supposedly lurking around. Eventually, someone breaks out a clavioline. It’s all very tasteful and well-turned, a little remote.

Coughlan sounds like Morrissey crossed with Roy Orbison, with twinges of both Elvises and a smidge of French lech. Strong and clear but with a narrow expressive range, he’s the kind of singer who stubbornly wins you over, rubbing elbows with one who effortlessly bowls you over. Campbell’s voice is perfectly hers—a strip of emerald-green ribbon, matte on one side, iridescent on the other, slowly tossing on a breeze. On “Home & Dry,” she starts husky and then slowly swings upward in her particular way, like something stumbling learning to fly. I’m not certain she gets the most mic time, but it feels that way. Still, on “It Can’t Be Love Unless It Hurts,” Coughlan ably holds down the brisk, romantic melody so Campbell can explore melisma more than she usually does alone, and he strikes on a sweet, inviting style on “Deep in the Night,” much more appealing than his Jacques Brel bray on “Jacqueline.”

Tracyanne & Danny peaks with “2006,” whose space-folk setting offers the album’s most inspired music and clasps the most quintessentially Tracyanne self-references: “I can’t believe this life was me/Now my passion is gone/I put my life in a song/I sing the words, they are true/I was as mean as you.” The album peters out in the home stretch, where more aggressive period mannerisms don’t entirely paper over the wispiness of the songs. But mostly it cruises in a sturdy vintage mode, down to the video for sugary country-rocker “Alabama,” which is shot like a 1970s buddy comedy, with Tracyanne & Danny driving around a crossfading map of the U.S. This timeless snapshot blur characterizes the record, too; its loveliness is a bit more tentative, more cautious, more formulaic than Campbell’s music with Camera Obscura had become. One understands. This project has time to grow. For now, we’re just so glad she’s back.

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