Perhaps DJ Cam’s best days were in the mid-1990s, when he, along with DJs Shadow and Krush, first brought hip-hop to the electronic music audience. Or maybe those best days came at the turn of the century, as his dazzling Loa Project, Vol. 2 broadened his range and he turned in what may be his best song, “Juliet”. (“Friends and Enemies”, from 1996, would be a close second.) In any case, his best days did not arrive after that, when Cam (a.k.a. Laurent Daumail, from Paris) filled his career with slick soul, awkward attempts at reprising his own ‘mad blunted jazz’ from the ‘90s, and wide-open spaces devoid of new material.
Seven, his first studio album in as many years if you don’t count his acoustic jazz stints with the DJ Cam Quartet, might be considered a proclamation that he’s back in the game. He already has a single in general distribution, “Swim” (featuring debut vocalist Chris James), and an expensively produced video to accompany it. But if Cam was intending to herald his return to the world with the release of this record, he does so most sullenly. That may be because his sporadic collaborator, most frequent sample subject, and friend Keith Elam (a.k.a. Guru) died suddenly in 2010 at the age of 48, after hanging precipitously in a coma. Whether or not Daumail’s grief over Elam’s death contributed to the cloudy atmosphere of Seven, the thing is a downer to its very bones.
It may also, unfortunately, be the latest in a parade of indications that Cam’s salad days are still behind him, artistically at least. Seven is spotty, much like the records of his contemporary, the Mighty Bop, though it does betray the slightest glimmers of forward movement. “Swim”, while dour, is Cam’s most convincing argument that he can write a solid song for the mainstream. The piano riff, gliding morosely over brushed hi-hats, is understatedly cinematic and big budget, and Chris James pitches his voice somewhere in between Chris Martin and Andrew Bird, emotive but approachable. As it turns out, James is something of a vocal chameleon, blending competently into his surroundings. On “Ghost”, and even more so on “Uncomfortable”, he morphs into a bona-fide soul singer who pulls up Cam’s somewhat empty productions. Cam’s two other vocal tracks, featuring Nicolette and Inlove respectively, aren’t much more than acid jazz rehashes in the Koop/Nicola Conte vein, and the singers don’t distinguish themselves from R&B’s usual grip of hired guns.
It’s the instrumental tracks, however, that truly sink the mood. In “California Dreaming”, alien signals and a disembodied voice (“I’m calling you … ”) give way to stern pianos and a brass section blaring a war cry or a death march. The Mamas and the Papas this is not. I couldn’t possibly think of a less appropriate title for “Dreamcatcher”, which sounds so strained and unpleasant it borders on unintentional comedy. “Seven” may be more listenable, but it’s overwhelmingly sad, and the fog of horns and strings can feel really oppressive if you’re not in the state of mind to hear it. I’m still deciding whether or not I enjoy “Fontainebleau”; to my ears it vacillates between pretty and drippy, and, though it recalls Cam’s magic touch with jazz piano samples, I have a difficult time digesting it because it’s deceptively heavy, especially with the contents of the record sitting like a rock inside my stomach.
The final song, “A Loop”, could pass as a bonus track, sounding like a holdover from two DJ Cam eras ago. Surprisingly, and impressively, it’s a wonderfully loose and funky homage to the transatlantic hip-hop crossroads that Cam has evoked better than anyone else. It’s got a beat, a bass, a Rhodes piano, a few light samples – maybe that’s all you need for a really great track. Whether he can recapture this kind of lightning in a bottle or follow his “Swim” template right into the pop charts, Cam may be looking at a third apex in his long and storied career.