Everything written about Toronto’s the Hidden Cameras seems to contain a comparison to Belle and Sebastian; the use of the phrase “sacred and profane,” or some variation thereof; and the word “gay” as a double entendre. These are somewhat fair but abbreviated descriptions of a band whose study of contrasts has produced some of today’s most rapturous music. With their newest release, Mississauga Goddam, the Hidden Cameras further prove that they are far more sophisticated than a scan through a few of their press clips might suggest.
Led by singer/songwriter Joel Gibb, the Hidden Cameras have a reputation for elaborate live shows, complete with male go-go dancers, and lyrics that detail a variety of bodily functions. Last year’s Rough Trade debut, The Smell of Our Own, was well-received, and rightfully so; it has just the right mix of grotesque humor, poignancy and gorgeous musical arrangements. Mississauga Goddam bears the same multi-layered instrumentation — the band adds harp, strings, timpani and organ to the standard rock format — but sounds slightly less produced; its grandest moments are more understated but no less forceful. The occasional choir-style vocals on The Smell of Our Own are mostly absent here, Gibb’s tenor voice standing alone.
The album’s title alludes to Nina Simone and refers to a damn in the Toronto suburb where Gibb grew up; the title track captures well small-town frustration: “Mississauga people/ carry the weight of common evil/ and go about their lives/ with a whisper and a whine.” Gibb’s lyrics are marked by an unapologetic frankness (see “I Want Another Enema”) that can empower a variety of “unsavory” or stigmatized practices, sexual or otherwise.
“In the Union of Wine” and “Music is My Boyfriend,” placed back-to-back in the center of the album, are most exemplary of Gibb’s ability to make really catchy and really pretty songs, without mutual exclusivity. “In the Union of Wine” is the album’s loveliest track, with a lilting chorus and subtle piano and string accents; “Music is My Boyfriend” is more propulsive, a giddy pop song. Both explore the discovery of music as a metaphor for personal relationships in a smart, sometimes funny, and entirely un-sappy way. And with the transformative power of music as a running theme, Mississauga Goddam continues what “Golden Streams,” the lush opener of The Smell of Our Own, began: a challenge to how we construct the dirty and the beautiful.