The Hidden Cameras had yet to release a note of commercially available music when, in early 2002, they became among the most discussed and celebrated unsigned bands in the history of their native Toronto. At the close of the year, they had been the subject of uncommonly sensational features in The Globe and Mail (Canada’s national newspaper) as well as in every daily and weekly in Toronto.
The reasons for the reckless enthusiasm of these usually cautious journals are simple: revelatory live performances that attack and transcend the staid, dispassionate traditions of rock nightclub culture; and the songs of band front-man and mastermind Joel Gibb, a talent of uncommon melodic and poetic gifts. “The Hidden Cameras aren’t famous,” wrote the Toronto Star in July, “but if you believe the buzz, it’s only a matter of time.”
Now, shortly after becoming the first Canadian band to be signed by Rough Trade in the label’s 25-year history, The Hidden Cameras have delivered The Smell of Our Own, surely – and without hyperbolic padding – one of the most enthralling and individual debut albums to come from anywhere in years. The Smell of Our Own is an all-too-rare type of debut – the type that sounds as if it was conceived in its own aesthetic universe, its worldview and core sound already whole. But at the same time, it suggests that The Hidden Cameras are only beginning to evolve.
The Hidden Cameras might fleetingly remind listeners of other great artists, but the heart of the group’s sound is best explained by a flip but accurate descriptor that Gibb created when the Cameras was only the seed of an idea: “gay church folk music.” “’Gay’” meaning ‘happy’,” Gibb says, although his songs have also drawn wide acclaim for their fearlessly explicit but remarkably touching examinations of homosexuality.
‘Church’ refers to the implicit gospel influence in the Camera’s music; the cavernous, cathedral-like air of their recordings (some of the group’s now-legendary early concerts were staged in Toronto churches); and the religious/spiritual imagery that weaves comfortably around the erotic and romantic themes in Gibb’s lyrics.
‘Folk’ addresses not only the central motif of Gibbs strummed acoustic guitar, but the communal, open-door policy that has seen the band swell to as many as 15 on-stage members, including male go-go dancers who strip down to underwear and balaclavas and encourage the audience to sing along to lyrics projected onto a backdrop. “Indie shows, generally in my mind, are associated with people not moving, smoking cigarettes, maybe making little insults to their friends about people who are trying to dance,” Gibb said in a recent newspaper interview. “For us, it’s about engagement. The dancers are there to take away some inhibitions…It’s about enjoying yourself and your body.”
No longer the secret of Toronto and the few Canadian cities lucky enough to have been visited by them, The Hidden Cameras are now poised to belong to the world. Listen to The Smell of Our Own, and know that bands as special as this rarely happen along. And know that one has, just when we needed it.