Thursday, October 15, 2009

Leaving The Nest?

The Hidden Cameras - Origin: Orphan (Arts and Crafts, 2009)

The Hidden Cameras remain a band close to my heart, even though they mostly make the kind of sugary indie-pop that I listen to sparingly these days. There’s still something very admirable in Joel Gibb’s way of fashioning nagging and infectious melodies from very conventional, limited and predictable musical building blocks. All too often, their songs deliver a great burst of joy that is impossible to resist.

That these songs have often come with subversive intent (Gibb’s candid lyrics deal not just with homosexuality and attendant desires – but with the physical mechanics of sexual activity) adds a defiance and triumphalism so often absent from a genre more concerned with nostalgia and whimsy. Gibb seems to have gained a reputation as a miserable interviewee, but when I interviewed him on the band’s first visit to the UK, I found him engaging and unflinching. He wasn’t in the slightest bit worried that anyone should be put off by the frankness of his songs – he was only interested in the open-minded.

‘Origin:Orphan’ is perhaps the first album where Gibb sounds a little confused over his identity. A number of the tracks hark back to the ‘gay folk church’ sound of ‘The Smell of Our Own’ but do so with arrangements that have been embellished even further. Elsewhere, Gibb branches out in rather different directions. Few could have expected a Hidden Cameras album to begin with a two minute drone, or for its title track to sound like a cross between Spiritualized and Depeche Mode.

Sometimes these experiments are done on a budget. Some reviews have compared ‘Do I Belong?’ or ‘Underage’ with ‘new wave techno’ (whatever that is – did techno have a ‘new wave’?). Actually, the former sounds about as cutting edge as Queen’s ‘I Want To Break Free’ played on a Bontempi organ and the latter sounds like ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ as performed by Tight Fit. How on earth does Gibb manage to make these simplistic, arguably tacky, undeniably dated performances so enervating and thrilling? Even though he’s at his most melancholy on the former (even to the extent of ‘sitting by the phone waiting for you to call’), there’s still a mischievousness and playfulness at the heart of these songs.

‘Origin:Orphan’ is often more audacious though. ‘In The NA’ retains Gibb’s trademark melodic sense, and is therefore recognisably a Hidden Cameras song – but it’s combination of synths and clattering percussion are a new addition. It then cascades into a chorus that is plucked straight from the REM songbook. The opening ‘Ratify The New’ is darker and more mysterious, with what sound like an Indian influence. ‘Origin Orphan’ is a rare detour into slower paced territory, with distorted guitars and programmed drums. Best of all is ‘Walk On’ which bolsters its essentially repetitive form with a colossal Spector-ish wall of sound. Gibb’s vocals are often heavily reverb-laden and double tracked which adds to the grandiose atmosphere. Another frequent characteristic is the extended outro – over which Gibb indulges his love of vocal ticks and yelps (often sounding more like a wolf or a dog than a human being), albeit with less irritating impact than has sometimes been the case in the past.

For the most part, Gibb follows the trend set by 2006’s ‘Awoo’ in keeping the lyrics more restrained and focusing more on emotions. The album ends with a song in this vein, and one of the group’s greatest to date, ‘Silence Can Be a Headline’, an epic ballad somewhere in between The Righteous Brothers, The Platters, REM’s ‘Everybody Hurts’ and Roy Orbison.

A couple of tracks see him returning to more provocative themes, not least the hilarious ‘Underage’ (‘let’s do it like we’re underage…’I’ll pretend you’re seven and you’ll pretend I’m eight’….’you have the most beautiful young thing I’ve ever seen’ – eek!). If the Daily Mail were to pick up on this, the band would gain a whole lot more publicity! ‘The Little Bit’ manages to throw every trick in Gibb’s book into one two minute slice of string and brass laden pomp-pop (‘a little bit of spittle and a little bit of blood’ – niiiice). All par for the course, but I’m beginning to prefer Gibb in more tender mode (‘Kingdom Come’ is particularly wonderful). Even after ‘Awoo’, it still remains

‘Origin: Orphan’ perhaps sees Gibb dipping a toe in the water – only partially leaving his roots. Whilst it is at times brave, it’s no radical departure from the honeyed melodic template. Its greatest strength, aside from the chamber pop arrangements, remains Gibb’s voice, which carries exactly the combination of pure clarity and dirty nasal whine that his lyrics demand – that always appealing mix of sacred and profane. The sequencing is inevitably a little haphazard and there are some moments, joyful as they are, where Gibb is clearly repeating earlier achievements (‘He Falls to Me’, ‘Colour of a Man’ – the latter is a sweet melody in search of another section or chorus). Yet, on balance, it’s further evidence of Gibb’s talents, and a firm suggestion that he is far from losing inspiration. There is much here to relish and enjoy.

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