Mike Atkinson

The Hidden Cameras – Awoo

Posted in album reviews, Stylus by Mike A on September 21, 2006

Originally published in Stylus magazine.

Full disclosure: the second album by The Hidden Cameras, Mississauga Goddam, was my favorite release of 2004, and I have been panting with anticipation for its successor for several months. It therefore gives me no pleasure to report that, even after dozens of plays, AWOO steadfastly refuses to graduate from the extremely pleasant to the truly transcendent.

I have given AWOO time, because Mississauga Goddam also needed time. Time enough to accept that the same so-called “gay church folk music” formula was still being followed, with little discernible musical or lyrical progression. Time enough to realize that this was no reductive repetition, but an elegant refinement and consolidation of the themes which The Smell of Our Own set in motion. For when a house style is this singular, with so few points of useful comparison outside of its own self-contained universe, then unfair charges of sameness are almost inevitable.

For me, what sealed Mississauga’s greatness was witnessing it being performed live. Whilst his perma-grinning band-mates cavorted and exhorted, whipping us up into a suitable state of exultant communion, singer and songwriter Joel Gibb stood stock still in the center of the fray: lofty, inscrutable, and detached, reciting his lines with barely a glimmer of visible emotion. So here were multiple contradictions: between the gleeful extroverts and the aloof loner, between the innocent fun of the high school revue and the darker undertow of the confessional booth, between the intensity of the lyrics and the impassivity of their performance. The private and public, the adult and the child-like, the sacred and the profane: all gloriously intermingled for maximum effect.

AWOO duly conjures up all of these memories—but it adds nothing to them, beyond a mental projection of what it will feel like to hear the new songs performed in a few weeks’ time, in the same small venue, in the same city, two years on. So, yes: the insistent, pile-driving “Lollipop,” largely performed on one repeated note at great speed, like a punk rock Philip Glass, will have us all frantically head-bobbing and pogo-dancing. Similarly, the call-and-response nature of the title track will have us hollering “Awoo!” in all the right places, and beaming like loons as we do so. Which is all neat and dandy—but we’ve been here before, our imaginations need more to work on than mere anticipation of a jolly night out, and we expect more from The Hidden Cameras than safe, predictable indie under-achievement.

Nevertheless, not everything has remained static—for this third re-working of the formula is conspicuously lacking in one of its key ingredients. Quite simply, all the raunchy gay sex has gone—and with it, the thrill (and let’s be honest, itwas a thrill) of scouring the lyrics for the latest transgressive gobbets, and of being the only person in the room to know what Gibb was really singing about. (“Guess what, everybody! This one’s about two guys pissing on each other!”)

Not only are they stripped of sex; their pointed lack of gender-specific references means that the unequivocally gay perspective has also vanished. Now, this can be interpreted in one of two ways. Either the Hidden Cameras are moving away from the limitations of the sexual-orientation-specific and towards a more all-encompassing universality—or else this is a pragmatic move towards the mainstream, made for fear of alienating potential new listeners who have the band tagged as gay-sex-obsessed one-trick ponies, and hence of no direct personal relevance. It’s a dilemma which the Scissor Sisters must also have been wrestling with, as the distinctly de-queered Ta-Dah will testify.

In the absence of the directly carnal, new themes emerge. Some of the time, you sense that Joel Gibb is celebrating his release from a sexual relationship, and gratefully embracing his new-found freedom from desire. Sex is no longer viewed as the holy sacrament; instead, celibacy and solitude are leading him towards an elevated state of grace. Maybe Gibb is outgrowing his penchant for the wilfully provocative; there are no “Ban Marriage” polemics to be found here. On the other hand, by blurring the gender boundaries (there’s the odd “she” to be found here and there, and even a couple of veiled hints that babies might be on the way), maybe he is seeking to provoke his existing audience, in an altogether subtler manner.

Not that any of this matters when you listen to AWOO without the aid of a lyric sheet, as most will happily continue to do. As ever, none of this material is particularly matched by the music, beyond a certain tendency towards the euphoric, or the beatific. Once again, this is emphatically major-key, rousingly assertive stuff, heavy on harmonic and rhythmic unison, and furnished with huge, rollicking melodic refrains which evoke something of the campfire sing-along. Once again, these are contrasted with softer, gentler, altogether more low-key interludes, such as the prayer-like swoon of “Heaven Turns To” and the achingly lovely “Wandering.” Once again, these are tunes that will effortlessly lodge themselves in your head: contrary to its title, the lead single “Death of a Tune” has been a particularly insistent earworm over the last couple of weeks, as has the absurdly catchy title track.

For many of the confirmed diehards, this will be a more than ample extension of the band’s undeniable capacity to entrance and delight. However, and much as it hurts to say so, rather than winning over new converts, AWOO’s main achievement might be to delineate, skilfully but inescapably, the outer boundaries of its creators’ artistic reach.

Rating: B

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