Clip: Hidden Cameras come to Cleveland
Congregation of Freaks
The Hidden Cameras play church rock with a naughty, naughty twist.
By Mikael Wood
Dec 6, 2006
"Modern-rock radio, the way that they master their music, they make it
sound so loud, but really crappy," says Hidden Cameras frontman Joel
Part of the Toronto indie-rock community that also includes Broken
Social Scene, the Cameras play what Gibb once described as "gay church
folk music." Other writers keep recycling the phrase because it
captures the band's material better than anything else: Gibb, a gay
man, sings in a polite choirboy voice about love and religion and sex,
over arrangements that favor acoustic guitars and Sunday-school piano.
The only improvement "gay church folk music" could stand would be the
addition of "summer camp" in there somewhere.
Gibb -- on a cell phone, "somewhere in Germany" -- mentions the loud
crappiness of modern-rock radio because one hallmark of the Cameras'
records is the massive, wall-of-sound quality Gibb inherited from one
of his favorite producers, Phil Spector. Concerned more with scale
than volume, the '60s pop icon built his monolithic sound by recording
several instruments playing the same thing at once. It's huge, but
lacks the kind of definition that obsesses modern record makers. As
heard on such classics as the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," Spector's
productions possess an airiness that is in total contrast to the
hyper-compressed churn you get from Nickelback or Hinder.
Albums by the Hidden Cameras, whose fluid membership sometimes counts
10 or 11 players, exude a similarly airy quality. On 2004's
Mississauga Goddam -- a play on words referencing both Gibb's suburban
Toronto hometown and soul-jazz singer Nina Simone's "Mississippi
Goddamn" -- the music skips across tempos that are consistently
quicker than you'd expect, goosed by sawing strings and lots of hand
"On that record we were doing a lot of things, in terms of the studio
and the production, that would be similar [to what Spector did]," Gibb
says. "We used an old, big tape machine and a reverb plate -- all the
same stuff that he would've used. But it wasn't all at the same time,
so that's different."
What's also different is Gibb's lyrics, which would make tough-chick
Ronnie Spector blush. In 2003's "Golden Streams," Gibb sings, "My
golden bone meets the golden bun." This is the other idea that writers
keep recycling about the Hidden Cameras: the titillating friction
between Gibb's sexually explicit songwriting and his band's melodic
indie pop. There's merit in that observation, inasmuch as there's
merit in observing how surprising it is that Justin Timberlake's songs
with Timbaland aren't all about software. Think about it for a second,
though, and the notion is a little offensive. What should music about
gay sex sound like, if not the music the Hidden Cameras make? Should
it be ugly instead of pretty? Rude instead of polite? Funny instead of
Perhaps Gibb has grown tired of the observation himself, since on the
Cameras' fine new album, Awoo, he seriously holds back on the
beautiful descriptions of anal sex. The new stuff emphasizes another
type of friction in the band's music: the contrast between Gibb's
deadpan delivery and his bandmates' exuberant playing. The songs are
some of the Cameras' loveliest yet. "Heaven Turns To," a midtempo
ballad, shimmers with clean electric guitar strumming and a wistful
oboe line, while the verses in opener "Death of a Tune" tremble in
anticipation of the song's jubilant chorus.
Yet throughout Awoo, Gibb sounds like he's reciting insurance-rate
figures, which actually ends up giving the music the sort of
over-the-top melancholy that is Morrissey's enduring gift to misfits
the world over. As in much of Morrissey's stuff, the music's narrative
is that of a man trapped by society -- a sort of 21st-century update
of Spector's trick, in which the producer's wall of sound represented
the forces bearing down on the teenage singer's doomed romance.
That angle is even more pronounced in the Hidden Cameras' live show,
where Gibb surrounds himself with costumes, go-go dancers, and props,
including "some rather large banners" (which a New York gallery plans
to exhibit early next year). The show is stormy and hilarious, yet
Gibb plays its center of calm, a prisoner of his own creation. He
resists agreeing that his delivery is restrained in some way, but does
allow that he's "too busy playing guitar and singing" to work up much
of the excitement we've come to expect from rock and roll frontmen.
"There's not a lot of breaks where I don't sing," he says. "A lot of
times I'm singing, like, really a lot -- there's lots of words to
remember, you know? And it just requires concentration, because I'm
not that great of a musician."
Who / What:
The Hidden Cameras
Rock & Pop
9 p.m. Tuesday, December 12, $10, 216-321-5588
The Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Boulevard, Cleveland Heights