The Phantom Tollbooth

Artist: Michael Cameron
Label: New Dawn Music
Length: 10 tracks/43.31 minutes

Michael Cameron's third album is something of a change from previous releases. After the fairly predictable soft-rock of its predecessor, Hard On Your Heels, this release takes a different tack, and under the production guidance of Peter Wilson (Booley House), Cameron has incorporated strings and a few electronics into his sound.

Cameron's voice is fairly soft with a strong Irish accent and tends towards the higher end of the male range. The sound along with it is generally somewhat relaxed--there is energy in the arrangements but no attempt is made to translate this into hard edges. The mixture of acoustic guitar, Susan Enan's string arrangements, and a range of other instruments suits the songs better than anything more aggressive would have done.

The range of other instruments varies quite widely. From tracks like "Tired and Weary." where the vocals are accompanied only by piano and cello, to "Anywhere," which supplements these with electric guitar, bass, drums, violins, keyboards, and a low whistle, the melodies are strongly emphasized throughout. These accompany songs aim to address a broad range of human experience.

"Don't Ask Me How," which was penned jointly by Cameron and his producer, speaks of the difficulty of making a commitment:

As a whole, the album is a significant step up from its predecessor and has a fairly contemporary feel in its use of programmed beats and melodic sensibilities. That does not automatically make it something that will be a hit with those interested in the alternative side of music, but this will certainly intrigue those who desire some progression in their pop.

By James Stewart (1/12/99)

This is Irishman Michael Cameron's third album, following 1995's Healing Love and 1997's Hard On Your Heels, and as such it exudes confidence and maturity.  Thankfully, this is balanced by a refreshing restraint and lightness of touch.

Stylistically, the material is reminiscent of nothing so much as Deacon Blue.  If you mourned the demise of that band, you should find plenty of comfort here.  Many songs feature the echo/response second vocals of Louise Wallace, working in much the same way as DB's Lorraine McIntosh used to.  As a bonus, Cameron's voice is much more tuneful and listenable than Ricky Ross's barking ever was!  One track, "Rescue Me," has an extremely sparse accompaniment and the vocals are highly exposed - yet there's no fault to be found with them.

Most of the songs are light acoustically-driven affairs, built around acoustic guitar, piano, strings, etc., but there are some well-chosen drum loops and synths/samples to give the album a strong contemporary edge.  The melodies and arrangements are generally strong and seductive and the production and engineering (courtesy of Peter Wilson and Frankie McClay, respectively) are smooth and accomplished without being over-polished. Lyrics are well-crafted and introspective, and offer as many questions as answers.  Cameron's faith is clear in these songs, but never overstated. As he puts it himself in "Don't Ask Me How," "If  my heart's on my sleeve, then my coat's inside out." It's easy to imagine that this material would translate well to a live setting, probably in a small, dark venue.  Check the New Dawn Music website for gig details.

The intimate atmosphere is sadly spoiled by "Name of the Father," the hardest sounding track by some considerable margin, which sounds a mite ham-fisted by comparison.  Its anti-hypocrisy stance and associated angry sound, though laudable, leave it sounding underdeveloped, maybe ill-conceived against the delicate grace of the other tracks.  However, "Rescue Me" follows, then the closing track, "Fragile," which is as its title says, and quite beautiful, too.  So he can be forgiven for his earlier blip.

By Daren Allder (1/19/99)