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Congregation of Freaks 

The Hidden Cameras play church rock with a naughty, naughty twist.

Joel Gibb (center) and his Hidden Cameras pave the way for a homo wall of sound.
  • Joel Gibb (center) and his Hidden Cameras pave the way for a homo wall of sound.
"Modern-rock radio, the way that they master their music, they make it sound so loud, but really crappy," says Hidden Cameras frontman Joel Gibb.

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 percussion.

"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 serious?

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."

More by Mikael Wood

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