I started with Joel Gibb’s second release, The Smell of Our Own, “Golden Streams” its first track, underproduced and over-orchestrated, hit me like that God bullet that travelled through time and killed Orion in Final Crisis (what an odd analogy). A wry smile broke across my face as the memories came flooding back. I don’t really feel like dredging up past glories, but for a good five year span I was a Hidden Cameras addict. One night out at a Cameras gig would leave a lasting feel-good sensation for days or even weeks. “Golden Streams” in the stage show, would often be accompanied by rolls and rolls of streamers being tossed into the audience who would then continue tossing the unfurling rolls about the church or club or wherever they found themselves performing. The Hidden Cameras, at their peak, were a force of nature, a warm wind up your pantleg that made you squeal with glee. Songs, extroverted and gay, were celebrations of Gibbs personal perversion and not so insulated emotions, and he welcomed everyone into the fold with a big warm hug, with a massive stage band, balaclava adorned dancers in nothing but underwear and socks that would reach out and invite you to join in. Inclusive dance moves and just the care-free joy of celebrating who you were.
“Golden Streams” ends, “Ban Marriage” kicks in, and shivers go up my spine as the memories keep returning, a flood from 2001 through to 2006, from the smallest of shows at Clinton’s on Bloor to their collaborations with the Toronto Dance Theater at the Harbourfront Center. They all kind of blur together as a mish-mash of delirium. Even the most disappointing of their shows was an utter delight.
“A Miracle” moves into “The Animals of Prey” and continues through to the end. “Breathe On It” ends and the lights seem to dim for “The Man That I Am With My Man”. I remember every tune as I heard them live for the first, tenth, twentieth time, each time different but grand. The album brings it all back, but it captures only the slightest morsel of the magic. I wasn’t ever very enthused about The Smell Of Our Own, and was terribly disappointed with it’s almost hollow sound when I first acquired it. But since the Cameras aren’t performing as they once did, and I’m certainly not as engaged with “the scene” as I once was, it’s found its place, as a reminder.
Mississauga Goddamn, the third album, arrived with songs that hadn’t necessarily sunk in from witnessing performances. The once ubiquitous live show disappeared from the local scene, having ventured out into a world beyond Toronto that embraced them with not just dancing and smiles, but money and exposure. Some of the songs were staples (”Music Is My Boyfriend”, “Believe In The Good Of Life”), others were just starting to be (”In The Union of Wine”, “That’s When The Ceremony Starts”), but some had never even been heard. The album was a quieter affair, with more of Gibbs romanticism coming through in “Builds the Bone”, “We Oh We” and the title track. But the opening track, “Doot Doot Plot” and “Bboy” found the orchestral folk giving way to greaser guitar, a pared back Cameras, and a more experimental Gibb. Mississauga Goddamn is the best produced album of the Cameras repertoire, and the greatest balancing act of the live energy and studio sound, but it’s not the best recording out there. That would be a live CBC Radio recording which was, I believe, later pressed to vinyl in a limited release offering. I always wondered why the Cameras never went for the straight live recording. That’s where their real power was.
But the best example of what Gibb had to offer was his initial home-brew release, Ecce Homo, a 9-song, half-hour wonder of four-track bedroom layering, looping and programmed drum machines. There’s a purity to this recording, a rawness that is undeniably alluring. It’s the skeleton underneath the muscles, veins, skin, nails and hair of the live show, and it’s the fact that it’s not emulating any performance, but instead putting creativity on display that this album succeeds. There’s an early Magnetic Fields quality, like Stephin Merritt’s similarly done-alone album Holiday or even Badly Drawn Boy’s pre-sell-out Hour of the Bewilderbeast that Ecce Homo has a spiritual kinship to.
These three albums represent three distinct phases in the trajectory of The Hidden Cameras, from one-man’s vision, to a massive artistic project, to a viable music concern. Their forth album, Awoo is best left out of the equation.