Looking on the cover of Camille’s new album, Music Hole, the thought that clings to me is who or what exactly she is gesturing to with one arm clutching her chest and the other one reaching out.
If you’re not familiar with her then this is the part of the review that brings up the inevitable comparison with Bjork’s a capella masterpiece Medulla. It’s a point Camille must surely be wary of by now but there’s no escaping the similarities between the two. Her last album, Le Fil, caught on outside her native France partially because of it as well as the single "Ta Douleur" was such an irresistible piece of ear candy. Music Hole is sung fully in English so it’s easier to follow, therefore one can truly gauge the effectiveness of her sound. Of course, the novelty of her sound has worn off and critical love being the bitch that it is, reactions to the album will be interesting to say the least.
It’s a point worth making because Camille has chosen to broaden the a capella-meets-rhythm path Le Fil began and this is the most crucial thing to understand about Music Hole. Let’s face it, in a pop age where musicians loathe diverting too far from what has worked (financially) for them before, Camille has pulled quite a coup. The album brilliantly combines the driving forces of continuity and exploration in a way only non-Americans have really managed in the pop landscape in recent times.
Critics demand musicians to unfurl more sonically, even if it’s to delve deeper into a sound they’ve tinkered with before. In such a regard, a musician can prosper or flounder without a critical backlash. That’s the difference between this Camille record and, for example’s sake, Madonna’s disappointing new album Hard Candy. One creates a continued space to expand while the other uses its space to rotate the same underwhelming effect its immediate predecessor had.
Music Hole shows up the lazy and bloated pop ditties that populate a Hard Candy or a E=MC2 and really one can’t view these far more successful artists in the same light. Mariah Carey has always been terrible but when exactly did Madonna lose her creative and sexually-charged urges?
Camille’s creative juices sprint out immediately on opener "Gospel with No Lord". She spurs herself on ("allez Camille Simon allez") amid a multitude of funk grooves that break out into more with each couplet until that final breathy outburst. It’s unclear what exactly the title pigeon-holes but there are enough controversial lines to suggest something wholly subversive (a crack at God, her genetics, et al). It’s a well-crafted oeuvre that continues with the other ten tracks and as they flow smoothly into each other. By then it dawns on you how great a technical album this is.
Every sound other than obvious electronic beats is done by the chanteuse herself and the coherence that she manages to get amid such collusion reaffirms her immense talent. Along with collaborator Matthew Kerr, Camille rattles off sounds that most vocalists wouldn’t dare attempt in a pop frame much less any at all. Here the Medulla comparison veers back into the frame because it’s the best ever gauge of where Music Hole stands as an achievement. I’m still of the opinion that Medulla isn’t appreciated enough for the possibilities it showed and thus neither can Music Hole be. Both will be seen as novelties that worked because of the artist driving them vis-à-vis the sustainability of such a genre.
Camille’s genius though isn’t limited to technical juxtaposition of sound and vocal injections. While Music Hole doesn’t offer the insane modulations Medulla can curl syntax as defining as does, it’s not a liability because it bounces tracks that render it just as original. Besides, no one in popBjork nor is her genius rivaled seriously by anyone not named M.I.A. Music Hole is stunning in what it grasps from the past as well as what it ekes out from its host production country, Iceland. "Canards Sauvages" juggles puddle of water effects over a deep swathe of Nordic pop then blows it all away blissfully with Camille’s voice. Even the more traditional tracks like "The Monk" shimmer with delightful vocal feedback.
The only hindrance to the album receiving a perfect score is its lack of editing. Her abundance of ideas sometimes comes off as overstuffed and, if cut or edited, could’ve had a sharper, leaner focus. "Money Note", brilliant as it is, undergoes endless rotations before finally ending. "Cats and Dogs" manages to tie its Piaf-like start to slightly comical ‘woof woof’ sounds to a minimum but the line is thin. For those few seconds before her vocals hijack the mood, it gets cagey while those arcane sounds flail around. Such wild experimentation takes guts even though pop music has become so gutless, especially in America.
The album as a creative concept is dying there and the record industry must be panicking when even the generic stuff they feed us isn’t moving units like before. Maybe we need to heed Nick Cave’s words and ‘call upon the author’ to explain what’s going on.
It’d be a pity if Music Note falls through the cracks because its best moments outshine that of any other record released this year so far. "Katie’s Tea" is one of many stunning numbers that features shrilly singing by the chanteuse complimented with pop invectives. These divine moments ("Home is Where it Hurts", "Waves", "Kfir") uncover the true indicators of her growth: a broadened sense of music influences. If Le Fil held Bjork up as the ideal sound solely then Music Hole, at its most maddening moments, echoes Tori Amos and Kate Bush (another heavenly pairing that always seems inescapable). While those are some pretty impressive names to dare to canvass from, I’m beginning to think that’s what Camille is reaching out for on the album cover: a slot alongside such vital female artistes. What may stun you, because the cover shot isn’t big enough for you to see, is how frighteningly close she is to reaching out to catch it.