Standing at the Showbox Saturday night during Camera Obscura's set, I actually said out loud, "Why am I so bored by this?" It was a question I had a hard time answering: I'm a fan of the Scottish six-piece, particularly the softness of lead singer Tracyanne Campbell's vocals. The music is lovely and charming, combining organ, guitars and the occasional harmonica to make indie pop that sometimes resembles Buddy Holly-era rock.
from the band's MySpace page
Fortunately, a friend of mine was able to answer the question by dubbing the band as "library pop." Seeing Camera Obscura live is sort of like visiting the library during children's story hour. There's a rapt audience of school children, listening to the librarian read them some cheerful, simple book they've all heard before.
Which is why the Lonely Forest -- the Anacortes band that opened Saturday night -- stole the show: Sure, Camera Obscura makes beautiful music, and after more than 10 years of performing, the band members play their instruments flawlessly. (The opening few organ notes of "Lloyd, I'm Ready to be Heartbroken," the band's encore song, sounded exactly the same as it does on the album Let's Get Out of This Country.) For those same reasons, Camera Obscura has already carved out its musical niche. Like a children's story, the music is lovely, but it's also predictable and safe. To see the Lonely Forest, by comparison, is to watch a band just teetering on verge of greatness.The Lonely Forest has the potential to hit the Seattle scene the same way as Modest Mouse or Death Cab for Cutie. (Death Cab's Chris Walla even told CNN recently that the Lonely Forest is "totally doing it" for him right now.) The band creates dynamic, piano-driven songs about the heaviness of life, that are played live with passion and enthusiasm. Drummer Braydn Krueger pounds at the skins, his curly hair bouncing about; guitarist and bassist Eric Sturgeon and Tony Ruland throw themselves around the stage and into the music.
And the band's music channels all the angst and uncertainty of youth. Lead singer, guitarist and keyboard player John Van Deusen is the band's primary songwriter, and at 21 years old, he's baring his soul on stage. Nearly every song off the band's newest album, We Sing the Body Electric! is about the struggle of moving from childhood to adulthood. The band played a new song, "Turn Off This Song and Go Outside," on Saturday night, and the lyrics dealt with the same subject matter: "Though I'm young/ my life's been short/ I'm only 21."
Ultimately, it's Van Deusen's voice that sets the Lonely Forest apart from any other indie rock band making music right now. Van Deusen has incredible control of his vocals -- which include his steady singing voice, a high falsetto, and a near-howling scream -- and is never out of key, even when performing live and harmonizing with Ruland. Van Deusen sounds like a young Michael Stipe -- and the song "We Sing in Time" has the potential to do for the Lonely Forest what "Losing My Religion" did for REM.
The song -- the last the Lonely Forest played on Saturday night -- is perfectly crafted to be both catchy and emotional. It starts with Van Deusen's vocals alone, backed first by a steady guitar; then fast, building drums are added. By the time the chorus begins, the weight of the song is revealed: "In time the trees die/ The light will fade/ But I hope for a new breath/ a new life to take me away." And with each chorus, Van Deusen changes his voice, eventually building in to the scream he's perfected.
The band creates a feeling of anticipation, whether it's the build-up of a song like "We Sing in Time" or the expectation that the Lonely Forest will someday be bigger than just an opening act. And that anticipation strips away any feeling of safety that a band like Camera Obscura might create. It makes you inhale quickly, hold your breath, and wait for it all to explode.