The Hidden Cameras

Locals bring their body worship to the altar of ornate pop

THE HIDDEN CAMERAS at Bloor Street United Church (300 Bloor West), Saturday (March 8). $6. For details, check

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Joel Gibb is body-obsessed. The shy savant behind the Hidden Cameras is fascinated by the bizarre bells and whistles of the human machine. He likes the naughty bits the hairs that poke out in strange places, the sticky fluids that seep from covert crevices, the ugly appendages polite folks pretend they don’t have. The Hidden Cameras’ wacky performances are all about bodies in motion. Dozens of ecstatic dancers in masks and various states of undress have been known to pack a stage. In his music, Gibb gets up close and personal by shining a light on all the physical stuff we’re supposed to keep under wraps.

“It’s rooted in the whole idea of how within society we’re becoming increasingly disconnected from our bodies,” he mumbles through a mouthful of veggie tempura in a Queen West sushi joint.

“The most relevant metaphor to me is the smells, the things that happen to your body that you’re not supposed to talk about. That’s why my music has a lot of sexual content.

“There’s a huge distancing in the way mainstream culture talks about sex. I think things should be addressed in a really candid and innocent and real way, without irony. Like describing some sort of moment of intimacy without taking it all back at the end of the song.”

Gibb’s trying to explain what inspired the title of his new album, The Smell Of Our Own (Evil Evil). It’s the Cameras’ first “official” recording — they recently rereleased Ecce Homo, the impressive collection of bedroom four-track ditties that birthed the band — and it snagged them an international deal with cool Brit label Rough Trade (Gibb holds the record’s rights in Canada Rough Trade tackles everywhere else), home to similarly eccentric NYC art-popsters the Moldy Peaches.

On the surface, The Smell Of Our Own doesn’t scream out for an “explicit content” sticker. What hits you is the band’s trademark sound: layers of ornate orchestral razzle-dazzle, pipe organ-and-strings-drenched pop ballads, backing vocals by an angelic choir and super-sweet melodies that recall girl groups from the 60s. It’s massive, and tremendously uplifting.

But then a sly lyric tumbles from the baroque swells to catch you off guard. Take album closer The Man That I Am With My Man, a charmingly simple anthem of adoration that’s less epic in scope. Gibb introduces us to a beloved boyfriend, and before we know it we’re bent over in a bathtub with him, basking in a golden shower of his sweetie’s pee.

It’s this striking contrast between the churchy hymn aesthetics and the bent lyrical concepts that makes the Hidden Cameras so interesting. It’s also what sets them apart from groups like Belle and Sebastian, to whom they’re most frequently compared.

Gibb credits his paradigm-jamming musical sensibility to his experience in the semiotics program at U of T.

“It’s the frame in which I really started to understand a lot of ideas in school, the notion of looking at things as symbols and seeing how they fit together. It works with music, it works with words and it works thematically. I think it’s most useful on a thematic level, to combine two ideas using words — like retelling a story from the Bible in a homoerotic context. It’s a juxtaposition of two separate meaning systems.”

In the Hidden Cameras, Gibb combines a campy gay sensibility — “Gay is Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp. It’s, like, scarves and the 70s and more sexual liberation. And great musicals with dancing” — with the residue of his upbringing as a member of a Mississauga Baptist community church.

“Certain elements in the Hidden Cameras are almost verbatim from that church,” asserts artist Paul P., Gibb’s best friend since they were eight and one of the infamous Hidden Camera balaclava-sporting go-go dancers.

“Joel co-opted a lot of things. Tambourine sounds were really common, and for contemporary hymns they’d use the overhead projector to shine lyrics on a screen. When I dance, I’ll raise my hand and sway, ’cause people would often lift their hands in praise during hymn sing-alongs. It adds a certain element of authenticity.

“It’s incorporating elements for the same reasons they did, but recognizing that you’re also using them to your advantage. Like when I lift my hand and sway, it’s a way of communicating that I’m feeling something and maybe someone in the audience is feeling something, too. I’m like a bridge between the audience and the band.”

Bridging the gap between the onstage spectacle and the crowd is one of the Cameras’ stocks-in-trade. They’ve attracted a healthy amount of buzz on the basis of their nutty live shows, which can feature dancers in drag, lyrics beamed from an overhead projector, kooky cheerleaders leading listeners in choreographed movement routines and — at their last Toronto show, in a U of T chapel — a gold-slathered centurion. Oh yeah, and a sprawling live orchestra.

It’s something that doesn’t necessarily translate to a studio album. When Gibb claims The Smell Of Our Own and the spectacle of the Cameras are two entirely separate beasts, you wonder what will happen when they take their circus act beyond the close-knit artsy cult following they’ve spawned in this city.

People don’t always get it, says instrumentalist Justin Stayshyn.

“We played for a bunch of engineers at Queens during their graduation, which was the epitome of boneheadedness. Even there, some of them warmed to us. But as soon as they saw the female go-go dancer, they weren’t impressed. They thought she had the kind of body that should be covered and were yelling at her to put on some clothes.”

And maybe ruffling conservative feathers is one of the goals of the Hidden Cameras’ pretty little revolution. The novelty of the band’s “gay church folk music” tag has been beaten to death by the press, but there’s no denying that Gibb’s subversive songwriting is slyly political — and not for all tastes. It’s an alternative take on being bent in a culture that thinks Will & Grace is edgy.

“I guess that’s what the whole Smell Of Our Own is all about. It’s about admitting that you might be gay, and that you’re kind of deviant, too. Homosexuals have this comfy position in society now ’cause they’re kind of accepted on a pop culture level. There are commercials geared toward us capitalism has given us that dubious honour.

“But they’ve sanitized the whole thing. To be gay in the 60s was deviant, and I think it should still be today.”

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