Jun 07, 2013, 09:47AM

The Kelly Rowland/Camera Obscura Mashup That Wasn't

Change that isn’t gonna come.

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"Still In Love With My Ex" is not only my favorite Kelly Rowland song; it's one of my favorite R&B songs ever. A Soulshock and Karlin production from 2007's Ms Kelly, the track has the yearning innocence of a Motown classic, complete with encouraging multi-tracked background vocals and simulated hand claps. But all that sugar is poured over conflicted, adult emotions; instead of kids pining for the freedom of adulthood, you get grown-ups so trapped they can't even hope backwards, like a Shangri-Las song twisted up and turned in on itself. "I shouldn't have gone from one situation to the next/still in love with my ex" is a line that feels all the more bittersweet because of the sing-songy, frankly silly rhyme. The girl group happy ending it holds out is one the singer knows isn't going to happen for no reason except that she can't make herself want it.

"Still In Love With My Ex" is definitely an R&B song. Part of what I love about it is the way that Rowland's soulful heartbreak splashes futilely against the sweet layers of production—not unlike the appeal of those great Billy Sherrill helmed George Jones/Tammy Wynette duets. Still, while it doesn't transcend its genre, it's interesting that the singles for Rowland's forthcoming Talk a Good Game sound a lot less like "Still In Love With My Ex" than Camera Obscura's just released Desire Lines.

The comparison isn't all that odd when you think about it. Contemporary R&B and contemporary dream pop have a lot of the same roots; both hark back to the harmonies and sweeping production of the Brill Building and Phil Spector. Destiny's Child referred to themselves as "the young Supremes" on their first album. I'm sure Camera Obscura has never made a similar claim, but Tracyanne Campbell's little girl vocals and the twee shoulder-shrugging hook on songs like "This Is Love (Feels Alright)" suggests they've listened to "Baby Love" a time or two. For that matter, "I Missed Your Party," with its retro-horns and Leslie Gore lyrics, sounds like it could actually be a Motown cover. Only the four-and-a-half-minute run time really give it away.

It's nice to imagine Kelly Rowland as the Camera Obscura of R&B, not least because, she's sometimes seemed uncomfortable with the conventional image required of R&B divas. Or at least, in those early Destiny's Child promotional pictures, Rowland is consistently the one smoking hot woman in the frame who looks like she'd like to put some clothes on. The one time she really appears comfortable is on the great Destiny's Child Christmas album—where the singers all get to wear sweaters. It's not hard to imagine she might enjoy recording in a context where she could just put a bunch of trees on the album cover, the way Camera Obscura does.

Or maybe not. If Rowland ever did feel marginal to the R&B mainstream, she has dealt with it not by going indie, but by aggressively remaking herself to fit. She got breast implants in 2011, and the Talk a Good Game album cover is designed to showcase them and everything else. The single "Dirty Laundry" is an analogous effort to bare all in order to reveal the same bits everyone else has got. Over a default sparse R&B beat, Rowland describes her jealousy of her former bandmate and step-sister Beyoncé and her experiences in an abusive relationship. The song has won a fair bit of praise, and I certainly don't doubt Rowland's courage or her honesty. But the particular narratives of victimization and overcoming she's confessing to here, to say nothing of the rote backing, are all a lot more familiar than the complicated trap of self-discovery she sings about on "Still in Love With My Ex."

The truth is that, in comparison to Camera Obscura's best work (2005's Let's Get Out of This Country), their latest is difficult to get enthusiastic about. If Rowland can seem like she's trying too hard to be herself, Camera Obscura sometimes seems like being themselves comes too easy. Languid dreamy hook; mildly elliptical lyrics; layered arrangement—select one from each column, repeat as needed to get to 45 minutes. When Campbell sings, "I won't let you down" on "Every Weekday," the promised consistency is perhaps not as reassuring as she would like it to be.

So, no, Kelly Rowland isn't the Camera Obscura of R&B; Camera Obscura isn't the Kelly Rowland of indie pop. Putting the two records side by side shows that they have similar roots, and that, despite that, genre remains an obstinate weight. Rowland, despite occasional mild intimations of idiosyncrasy, has, with some calculation, has decided to become more like herself.  Camera Obscura, for their part, has made another Camera Obscura record. Identity in pop, whether indie or mainstream, has its own remorseless logic, closing down future options as it locks in one, unavoidable past. As Rowland tells us on "Still In Love With My Ex," being who you are can break your heart.


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