As far as pseudo-a cappella experimental pop albums go, Le Fil is undeniably excellent.
Le Fil is thought. Or, specifically, the thin line of non-thought that links one's thoughts together. At least, that's my theory.
Translated literally, the title of Camille's second album (and first to be released in the United States, hence this particular re-issue) means "the thread". And, indeed, that thread is made explicit in a musical sense on the album, given that there is a quiet single-note "drone", credited in the liner notes to Camille herself, that happens to be present throughout the entirety of the album. Granted, you don't always hear it, but whenever a song ends, and whenever there is empty space in the instrumentation of a song, there it is, hiding in the background, protecting us from the prospect of absolute silence. It's a musical idea that carries with it the high potential of being annoying, but really, the album wouldn't be the same without it. Perhaps the only drawback to its presence, really, is the fact that because of it, nearly every song on Le Fil has to be in the same key. Even that, however, isn't all that obvious unless you're really paying attention.
Instead, you'll be too busy paying close heed to the instrumentation (or lack thereof) that Le Fil employs. The closest (and most common) comparison piece for Le Fil is Bjork's rather brilliant Medulla, except as applied to pop music. That's right, Camille makes nearly all of the sounds on her album with her voice, and manages to create something texturally interesting and incredibly accessible. It's no small feat, to be sure, and you'll find yourself listening over and over again just trying to figure out the inspiration, not to mention the methods, behind some of these arrangements.
Take opening track "La Jeune Fille aux Cheveux Blancs" ("The Young Girl With the White Hair"), for example. The song starts with the drone, as do all of them, but the first sound we hear after that is Camille herself, singing the first line of the verse. And then we hear more Camilles, processed into a sparse, staccato backing track for herself, with only a slight rhythm track and, eventually, what sounds like an upright bass backing her up. Granted, there's very little that's "natural", per se, about the Camille voices in that backing track other than the lovely, lush "ahhhh" sounds that build into the song's title, but simply the fact that something so unconventionally rhythmic and complex was created out of a sound still identifiable as a human voice is a feat in itself. Even better, the sense of wonder that the track brings is perfectly in line with the splendor of the rest of Le Fil -- whether it's the spluttery mouth farts, gags and hacks that make up the "percussion" line of "Ta Douleur" ("Your Pain"), the layered set of vocal "bells" in "Senza", or the ghostly, slightly distorted "ahhh" sounds floating over the top of the second verse of the fantastic "Au Port", nearly every track has something to listen to with a sense of slack-jawed wonder. It's a testament to Camille's voice, not to mention her compositional foresight, that all of it works so well.
In fact, the presence of so many largely vocal backing tracks makes it even more striking when instruments are used. "Pâle Septembre" actually starts as a duet with a Wurlitzer, also played by Camille herself, mixed almost as quietly as the drone, allowing the drone to actually play a part in the melodic development of the song. Even as it begins so quietly, however, the song explodes into something positively orchestral, with horns, percussion, and Camille's voice singing the string parts. It's startling to suddenly hear all of the instruments, and the effect is that of an emotional outburst laid bare, as if we had been listening in black and white, and it suddenly shifted to color. Of course, it's just a tease, and we're ripped out of the orchestration as quickly as we were introduced, and the album returns to its mostly insular feel.
It is that feel that has me thinking that what we hear throughout Le Fil is the sound of thought. A read through the lyrics reveals a woman in quite a lot of pain, apparently due to a relationship going (or gone) sour, and her thoughts portray her as dealing with it as best she can. This results in passages that fly between heartbreaking ("Pour que L'Amour Me Quitte", translated as "So that love leaves Me") and surreal ("Vous", whose lyrics mention a hippopotamus in a tutu), frantic (the frighteningly quickly-sung "Janine III") to plaintive (proper album closer "Quand je Marche", translated "When I Walk"), climaxing with the aforementioned explosion of "Pâle Septembre". It's not really a narrative as much as it is a series of blocks laid on top of each other until the weight becomes unbearable for the subject of our study, and she breaks down, if only briefly, before putting herself back together again. The drone connects them, serving little purpose but to be the transition between these thoughts, but still giving it the feel of a stream of consciousness, rather than pieces of consciousness.
Le Fil was first released last year to little fanfare outside Camille's native France, though it did manage to secure a spot on PopMatters' list of overlooked treasures. Thanks to positive word of mouth and the belief in Camille's obvious talent, it is now being distributed in America, with the "Bout du fil" bonus tracks previously exclusive to the second disc of the limited edition of the album in France. In yet another stroke of genius, even the bonus tracks employ the use of the drone that connects the album, allowing the whole thing a cohesiveness usually absent on expanded editions of albums -- here, the bonus tracks may not thematically quite fit, but musically slide perfectly in next to the rest -- not to mention that it's easy to forget about thematic inconsistency when you don't understand much of what is being sung.
Long story short: If you even gave Medulla so much as a curious glance, you owe it to yourself to hear this. That also goes for all of you who are interested in unique uses of the human voice, or are even merely looking for some solid intelligent pop music. Now that the import price is gone, so is your last excuse. Buy this.
Camille - Ta Douleur