Fillet of Soul is being hailed as “DJ Cam’s new album”, but that’s really a misstatement. Cam also gets top billing on the album artwork, but that’s equally misleading. While Cam’s official capacity on the disc is “Artistic Director / Executive Producer”, his only direct musical involvement is playing kalimba on one track, the “Live Intro” that bears his name. With jazz, you can get away with that kind of thing.
Fillet of Soul is primarily the creation of multi-instrumentalists Guillaume Naturel and Alexandre Tassel, both of whom have worked as sidemen with some impressive names: Tito Puente, Cameo, Björk, and others. As masters of their own destinies, though, they suffer the same fate as many well-respected sidemen. When given their own musical context to work with, they fail to create a definitive artistic statement. In other words, they’re a bit dull.
DJ Cam, the French trip-hop maestro whose work includes the much-loved Mad Blunted Jazz, baffled critics and angered fans by “going acid jazz” on 2003’s Soulshine. As the next major project to bear his name, Fillet of Soul isn’t likely to win many of them back. However, those willing to put preconceptions and expectations aside will find something to like.
“Only Your Friends” kicks the album off on a trip-hop vibe, its dubbed-out hip-hop beat providing a solid backdrop on which Tassel sprinkles electric piano. Groovy, laid-back, and funky. Next is “Where Do you See Me”, and here come the bubbly bassline, the breezy keyboard pads. This easy listening element causes a lot of electronica fans to draw a line in the sand and say, “Sorry, but this is just contemporary Muzak.” In the right hands, though, that doesn’t have to be the case; and while Tassel adds some nice bits of trumpet, the result is just not distinguished.
A couple of tracks do manage to stand out. “World Wide” picks up the tempo and gets all the instruments working in its favor: double bass, Naturel’s tenor sax, and Magali Pietri’s vocals produce an intimate, seductive effect. “Why Want You” adds a breakbeat but keeps up the atmosphere with melodramatic strings and piano. It’s the kind of immaculate techno-noir that’s earned Goldfrapp such a good name.
Unfortunately, Tassel and Naturel can’t maintain their focus, and soon enough Fillet of Soul drifts back into faceless jazz. “Smile” has a sunny Brazilian touch, but it’s followed by the baffling “I Don’t Know Why”. Listeners familiar with children’s television show Sesame Street may be unpleasantly reminded of the sketches where a particular letter of the alphabet got stuck in Bert and Ernie’s TV set, causing the TV to say the letter over and over. In this case, the letter is “I”, and it’s sampled and repeated throughout the song to hugely annoying effect. The closing “Ballad for Cam” is a languid, freeform doodle that goes on far too long and features an inexplicable reggae rhythm from pianist Laurent de Wilde. Was Cam having trouble with insomnia?
Excepting “I Don’t Know Why”, though, Fillet of Soul is never less than pleasant. The trouble is, it rarely manages to be more than that. There’s a sense that, with all the talent involved, things could have turned out much better.