In my perfect world, the one where the Cubs and Red Sox are duking it out for the World Series on a near-annual basis and I have a winter place on the coast of Kauai, singers like Paul Melancon would be megastars. A well-schooled student of pop -- clearly, he's heard a few Neil Finn records -- Camera Obscura, his second solo release after fronting the Atlanta-based Radiant City, is a sublime piece of indie pop. For being a low budget effort, there are a lot of nifty touches in the details and enough harmonies to fill ELO's entire catalog. This is sweet, sweet stuff.
Ironically, the song that's most likely to give the listener low expectations is the leadoff track, "Overture." The intro is out of a song written for a bad 1980s sitcom, but luckily it redeems itself before the final chords. "King Sham" is where things really get cooking. Equal parts Neil Finn and Jellyfish, it boasts a hook by way of the former and some darling falsetto vocals known by the latter. Few songs show Melancon's colors better than "Jeff Lynne." It's a four and a half minute trip through the band's entire catalog, with stopgap filler vocals, rainbow synthesizers, and even a well placed riff from ELO's "Livin' Thing." "The feeling I get when you love me/doesn't compare to you leaving me," he confesses before the last chorus. And, as an added bonus, we get a music hall piano bit for a segue way that shows he's listened to Aimee Mann's I'm With Stupid a few times. I'd venture to guess that Melancon's a big fan of Jon Brion's work, as he's a very good mimic of his production technique.
What separates Camera Obscura from the rest of the power pop litter -- a scene that's frankly about to collapse on itself -- is its stunning variety. You get the ELO tribute in "Jeff Lynne," and two songs later in "Little Plum," a ukulele-driven Tin Pan Alley romp. Three songs before that is "Entr'Acte," which has an island touch to it, and all of these are placed in classic pop contexts. And, lest we forget, is his voice, which has a delicacy not unlike Matthew Sweet's, but higher and surer. The last official track, "Finé" (the real last track is a cover of the Beach Boys' "You're So Good to Me"), showcases that better than anything. A vocal drenched killer of a ballad, it's a fabulous swansong.
Camera Obscura is one of the better pop records you'll hear this year. It's the ultimate irony that his style, which is Beatles-inspired unmitigated pop, isn't popular anymore. Perhaps if he sounded more like Fuel, he'd sell a few records, but thankfully, he has other things in mind.