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Isobel Campbell - Amorino

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Artist: Isobel Campbell

Album: Amorino

Label: Instinct

Review date: Oct. 8, 2003

The world of Isobel Campbell’s Amorino is like Eric Rohmer’s early 1960s work playing back in a perpetual loop. That set-up requires some explanation. Amorino, Campbell’s first true solo album since leaving Belle and Sebastian last spring, tries to set a scene more than it tries to captivate or fascinate its listeners. No one who has heard Belle and Sebastian, or Campbell’s Gentle Waves side project, or her EP with Bill Wells last year, will be surprised to learn that the scene that this album sets is one before popular music committed itself to the flat rock and roll path (on which every song has to feature either the guitar or a very clever substitute for a guitar, like a reversed guitar), a time when jazz was still popular enough that songwriters naturally wrote trumpet parts, just as a great many rock songwriters naturally write songs with guitar chords.

And the part about Eric Rohmer? She conjures a very specific kind of popular music – one that prized musicianship above energy and emotion, one in which the vocalist had to sing in key and in tune with the band, and one in which feedback and reverb were the kind of things studio engineers were supposed to get rid of. That of course was not the dominant mode of popular music even in the early 1960s, but it was a mode popular in Europe, particularly in France. You can hear it in the soundtracks of New Wave movies, blaring from the transistor radios of beachgoers stuck in traffic. Also, to put the matter bluntly, the title track ends with a voice-over in French, which is about as obvious a sign of the album’s influences as a critic can hope to receive.

Given its inspirations, Amorino is not supposed to be a dense or difficult album; the songs reveal everything in their early moments and there is no twisted construction to sort through, nothing anyone is in danger of missing after a single listen. It’s a style – and an album – that can be judged entirely on its obvious merits. The songs are meant to be pleasant, perhaps even beautiful at times, and the expanded musical palette – the violins, cellos, flutes, accordions, and so forth – is not the least bit experimental. The instruments are not pressing the boundaries of the form – they just happen to be the sorts of instruments that those who wrote and played French pop music used.

For people attuned to this sort of thing, Amorino is certainly worth it. The orchestral sweep of “Why Does My Head Hurt So” and “This Land Flows With Milk” remind us of a time when non-Francophone kids could enjoy Serge Gainsbourg without having to worry about the more disturbing implications of his lyrics; as far as they are concerned it was just sweet of him to duet with his daughter. Fans of Belle and Sebastian – and I’ll make a safe assumption that they comprise the vast majority of people interested in this album – will appreciate the album’s closing duet, “Time is Just the Same,” a guitar sing-along with a partner’s whose voice is about a register deeper than Stuart Murdoch’s, but that echoes some of their finer call-and-response moments just the same.

Still, there are missteps. The big band stomp of “The Cats Pyjamas” unfortunately confirms that harkening back to the time of the French New Wave also involves harkening back to the prohibition-era United States (hell, anyone who’s seen “Breathless” ought to know that). “Johnny Come Home” strips down its jazz accompaniments to dusted percussion and toy-piano plinking with only the faintest hints of strings and woodwinds, and Campbell – whose voice is good but not exactly powerful – cannot seem to make it work.

Of course, I’ve ignored so far the elephant that walks into the room whenever a Belle and Sebastian album – or splinter-album – comes under discussion: the “twee “ label. There’s no getting around it: this album is twee. Its melodic songs lack the fiery drive and urgency of rock and roll, consciously recalling an era of music of interest only to people looking for something truly vintage. Even if it were a more straightforwardly modern album, Isobel Campbell’s high, breathy vocals would still draw the charge from some listeners. The album’s greatest limitation, then, is that one has to be in a particularly receptive mood in order to sit down and listen to it. But “twee” implies an element of affected cuteness and vulnerability that the dark sophistication of most of the tracks – the title track most obviously – preempts. Campbell and her former bandmates have always been good at that trick: the music suggests an air of sunny naivete that the lyrics then undercut. “Monologue For An Old True Love,” for example, starts out as a simple tell-off, but gradually gives way to unrepentantly spiteful manipulation. Amorino may construct a mid-twentieth century idyll, but it’s careful to include moments of contemporary desperation as well. All in all, a pretty complete picture.

By Tom Zimpleman

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