With music ever splintering into a thousand new genres a minute, all advocating their unique and challenging innovation, maybe the most challenging and experimental is a genre older than music itself, that of the simple human voice. For if you can lay structure, texture and melody down through our own natural voice and rhythms, without relying on made-for-purpose instruments, what’s more experimental than that? But of course, that’s not something we like to talk about these days. And you can lay the blame square at the bouncy, happy feet of just one man, Mr. Bobby “Don’t Worry” McFerrin.
Ever since McFerrin released “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and turned the wonder and magical ability of the human voice into a cartoon pastiche, a capella has been in a bad way. In any record store where you are fortunate to find an a capella section you’ll see the same scene. Prospective buyer wanders over noticing interesting section; vision of a giddily-happy McFerrin clouds judgement; buyer winces and moves on. Case in point: The Recorded A Cappella Review Board (RARB) (yes, such an organisation exists), has reviewed 788 a capella records since 1994. Tell me, how many of those did you run out and buy?
Thankfully it looks like the genre has found its saviour in French artist Camille. Le Fil, Camille’s impressive previous record has already sold well in excess of 500,000 copies. Not bad for an avant-garde concept, where the entire album was hung on the thread of a single unobtrusive note, sustained throughout the album. On Music Hole, Camille continues her exploration of the human voice, or as she puts it in her publicity, a mix of “the storytelling, chansons-feel from musicals with something more tribal: body percussions, minimalist trance, sub bass and throat singing.”
Music Hole shows Camille not just as an intriguing singer but also as a masterful arranger. At times her vocal arrangements are double-tracked, so she deliciously becomes her own rhythm section, while beat-boxing and crooning over the top. The result is mesmerising and with the sparse use of piano whispering in and out, Camille’s vocal dexterity wins you over before any curious doubts really sink in.
“Gospel With No Lord” is a wise opener. Infectious, irreverent and playful, Camille layers the beat-boxing, providing the cool bass underscore. With a delicious “Allez Camille Allez” intro making her sound like a softly spoken M.I.A., Camille is soon away on an addictive rap, cooing “I Didn’t get it from the Lord / But I know I got it / I know I got it / I didn’t get it from the Lord / I got it from my brother / I got it from my sister / I got if from my mother and father / I got it from myself.”
When Camille sings “from my father in-law / from my sister in-law”, the way she uses the croak at the back of her throat to stretch out the “awwwww” is captivating. You soon realise that we’re being cheated and all along she’s had a secret companion, her wry sense of humour. Half way through this cool little wordy rapping hood she throws you off guard, bringing in a heart-wrenching piano, a la Tori Amos circa Little Earthquakes, and you’re left there, a little crushed, before she giggles and carries back on with the fun. It’s modern day cabaret, with all the style of the Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer, but without some of the cynicism.
The wry humour continues throughout the record. On “Cats and Dogs” Camille comes across all gorgeous Ute Lemper -like, swaying a chanson melody back and fore, while warning of the true intentions of our domestic pets. “Cats and dogs are not our friends / Scratch their ears / They’ll wave their tails / And if it rains again next weekend / It’s all because of them.” It’s mischievous and fun, but when the farmyard noises appear you start to wonder if Camille hasn’t put on make-up and lights for The Muppet Show. You half expect a penguin to turn up.
As quirk and irony, the “Money Note” fares much better. Above an amazing self-made beat, which sounds spookily like the bass for Happy Mondays’ “24 Hour Party People”, Camille hilariously takes the Mariah and Whitney warblers to task. ‘‘If Dolly Parton wrote it / And Whitney Houston stole it / If Celine Dion could reach it / I’ll hit the money note.” However as much as the comedy is titillating and mischievous at times, it’s curious why Camille wishes to litter the album with such trivial fun, when her true talent—her voice and the exploration of it—is so tantalising. Thankfully the vocal genius and body kinetics are left to breathe on the majority of the songs. “Kfir” runs along on a chilled R&B groove, “Home Is Where it Hurts” is a pouncing and textural ballad, while “Waves”, appropriately so, is a swirling ambient delight.
The Online Etymology Dictionary lists the origins of a capella as from the Italian for “in the manner of the chapel”. Music Hole’s absolute treasure is “The Monk”, a layered and drifting solo piece of classical a capella that would sound rapturous if it were floating up into the high recess of a cathedral. It sounds eerily like Dawn Upshaw, the arrangement is sublime, and it suggests that hopefully in the future if Camille wishes to move beyond the swelling beat-box of her voice it won’t be into comedy, but graceful magic like this.