The Hidden Cameras

AWOO

(Rough Trade/Evil Evil/Arts & Crafts; 2006)

By Scott Reid | 13 August 2006

Joel Gibb: When I started the Hidden Cameras, there were no auditions… I just asked people I knew to play a gig, and that was sort of trying out different instruments and configurations in the band, you know? There have been changes, but the group right now works really well, and we’re all pretty… [thinks word over carefully] stoked over this new record.

*****

AWOO.

With that one word echoing a song echoing twelve more, its two loaded syllables sung with empirical might, Joel Gibb and his Hidden Cameras tell you everything you need to know about their fourth record.

First, foremost: this is pop music. More than that, this is pop — intertwined with and influenced by decades of folk and rock — meant as inhibited, contagious celebration for the band and its audience, through music that is in many ways simple and in others madly esoteric (lyrics mostly; I’ll get to that).
I use the adjective "simple" here not in a derogatory, James Bluntian sense but as a recognition of Gibb’s approach to pop songwriting: he’s extremely fond of I-IV-V progressions (perfected many years ago with "Louie Louie"), there’s a lot of repetition in and between songs, and the hooks are bigger than the risks taken. Which is fine, because the music is great despite its general sameness, and because this band, in every conceivable angle of their art from packaging to live shows and music videos, is fun. Like the Pipettes if you can stomach them, or Supergrass before they grew up; hell, like any great pop music when it hits the right vein, the Hidden Cameras are exciting, deceptively clever, and playful in a way that forfeits pretension.

This is what "AWOO," the record’s exuberant first single, captures perfectly. In fact, the track plays like a microcosm of the band’s orchestral pop aesthetic; a few kinetic guitar chords birth jittery glockenspiel and a reserved Pet Sounds bass line, building tension before its jacked up chorus lets loose, catapulting forth strings and multi-Joel harmonies. It’s easily one of the Cameras’ best songs and an archetype for the record in more ways than one. Gibb chooses to reprise the song at the very end of the record as "the WAning mOOn" (check out the "subtle" capitalization in the title), this time deflating "AWOO’s" exact same progression with new lyrics, melody and arrangement. Both songs creatively explore two different but distinct sides of this record (celebratory pop vs. mid-tempo folk balladry), revealing how much this band can do with pop structure, even if they’re just recontextualizing a few chords.

What AWOO doesn’t immediately reveal, however, is Gibb’s conductorial role in his art-school militia. Like innumerous pop auteurs before him (think Brian Wilson, to a point), he writes just about everything, including each of these song’s expansive arrangements (up to six or seven instruments, depending). In an age of Arcade Fires and Sufjans and fucking At War With the Mystics, that might sound like less an accomplishment or vital aspect than it really is, but Gibb isn’t another soft whisper/piano ballad kind of songwriter with weepy strings, he’s not repeating the same themes on different instruments just because he can, and he isn’t setting a futuristic atmosphere for battling robots. There’s no gimmick here, no kitchen sink mentality. He knows when just few instruments will do — like the eerie, resonating violin that creeps into “She’s Gone,” or the triangle-like chime that brings each of “Fee Fie’s” verses to a short, delightful halt — instead of the entire arsenal, all at once, all the time. Like the Beefhearts and Zappas of the world — artists Gibb has little in common with beyond his approach to composition and recording — Gibb’s greatest talent might lie in his ability to control, plan, and execute the production of his albums without needing an editor, a shot in the arm, or a reality check.

*****

CMG: Is writing something that’s always come easy to you?

JG: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember… it’s probably due to being obsessed with playing music, and writing music. And at this point, I have no other way to live, and nothing else to do with myself. [pause] At this point.

CMG: OK, so your concerts, and the masked dancers…

JG: Actually, we haven’t had dancers in over a year. That’s sort of a misconception, that we always have go-go dancers. I’d like to say that we do.

CMG: Of course.

JG: But we don’t.

CMG: No. But the concerts, previously the masked dancers, the elaborate collaborations with the Toronto Dance Theatre, the AWOO video… theatrics seem to be extremely important to the Hidden Cameras.

JG: Theatrics are always important. I mean, those are the important elements of live music — to have a little bit of the chaotic or the unpredictable happening. It’d be really boring to just replicate a record and not be theatrical.

CMG: Do you find inspiration for these kind of theatrics in other music?

JG: I haven’t been able to listen to music in so long. My computer fried and I’ve been without everything. But… when I did have a record player, I was listening to a lot of Janis Joplin — her live album [In Concert; 1971], over and over and over. It’s really cool.

*****

A quick concession: I, and by extension this site and its unknowing staff, got the first two Hidden Cameras albums wrong. Most critics got those records wrong, in fact — the disgruntled lot of us united in giving Joel a lot of understandable guff for the explicit sexual imagery in his lyrics, passing off songs like "I Want Another Enema" (you guessed it: “a political song how people perceive their bodies") or "Golden Streams" (of course: "peeing in the cold, getting to heaven through streams of pee connected in a grid") as an unnecessary gimmick, and not, as CMG’s Mark Abraham put it in an e-mail not at all meant for this review, "an activist openly expressing cultural values in opposition to a normative culture."

If you spend enough time with the group trying to understand where Gibb is coming from, it’s clear that Mark’s right about him being far more an activist than an indie-pop smut peddler. Not that lazy critics like myself, filthy Chuck Berry jokes running through our filthier minds, saw it as being that crass; it’s just that Gibb’s lyrics aren’t the kind we encounter often in pop music, and even less so attached to music that can often be so… well, uncrass. Beautiful, even. Regardless of the deeper political meaning behind urine drinking metaphors, and despite there being a large audience out there for whom enemas and watersports are part of a counterculture norm, this is pop music that appeals to a large and diverse not-just-indie set. And for a large sect of that audience that does see these topics as taboo, lines like "he swallowed my pee" are going to stick out as being purposefully esoteric, in the process belying Gibb’s real talent as a lyricist — one who’s not at all actively trying to alienate with his music.

With AWOO, Gibb’s writing moves in small but significant ways away from this easily misunderstood-as-perverted approach. There’s the same unique take on sex and love and body politics if you’re willing to dig deeply enough, just now laced in language less likely to cause pearl-clutching amongst critics who giggle uncomfortably at the thought of watersports. On a very basic level, his lyrics on this record seem like a natural progression, an attempt to circumvent the limitations of urine metaphors while keeping their message intact. The shift is hardly redefining, but AWOO does manage to set up fewer barriers for its potential audience than either of its predecessors. As such, focus can be kept on Gibb’s talent as a pop songwriter — developing steadily since 2001’s Ecce Homo, and arguably at its peak here.

He’s certainly at his most consistent; the album’s first eight songs dramatically ebb and flow without falter, from "Death of a Tune’s" irresistible country-rock rhythm to "Lollipop’s" relentless verses, "Follow These Eyes’" sweeping Andrew Bird-isms and "Heji’s’ (pronounced "HEY!" in a corpse-waking scream) extraordinary use of group dynamics.

The "Heaven turns to"/"Wandering" one-two is the only time AWOO begins to drag, ever so slightly. Grouping together two of its most saccharine mid-tempo tracks seems like an odd move; both sound like (comparatively) weak reworks of older tracks like "We Oh We" and "Boys of Melody" without the same immediacy or melodic heft (in abundance on "She’s Gone" and "Fee Fie"). The uncharacteristically epic "For Fun" quickly regains momentum, trading more stop-start verses with a serene instrumental breakdown and emphatic choruses that, as they often do, continually repeat the song’s title. Paired with older, reworked highlight "Hump From Bending" and the lilting closer, AWOO comes to a sudden end, as engrossing a listen as it began, barely scathed by its few tamer moments.

AWOO isn’t a drastic change for the group (many of its songs sound like Mississauga Goddam‘s, which sounded a lot like Smell of Our Own‘s). But whether you interpret the enemas and golden streams of those albums as juvenile or erudite, the relative accessibility of AWOO offers a less distracting peep hole trained directly on one of indie’s finest songwriters. Watch him piece together this overwhelming whole after working and developing with his backing group long enough to not just understand but exploit their individual talents, collectively sussing out just over forty minutes of genuinely affecting, and fun, pop music.

*****

CMG: Any songs that you get sick of playing after all these years of touring?

JG: Not really. I mean, we have so many songs at this point… probably 40 or 50. Really, it’s a shame that we can’t get to all of them.

CMG: What are your favorite songs to play?

JG: Hmm.. usually just the newest ones that we’re doing. Like, my favorite songs right now are ones that the band hasn’t even heard that we’re going to start recording… near the end of next week we’re going to try and have a quick rehearsal, we’ve got a couple of country songs we’re going to record. And then we’re going to start a psychedelic record; it’s sort of an AWOO. Like an extension of AWOO in some ways, but more psychedelic.

CMG: Oh?

JG: I can’t wait to experiment with backwards tape.

CMG: Oh.