There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
When Joel Gibb first heard Morrissey sing, “The sun shines out of our behinds/No, it’s not like any other love/This one is different—because it’s us” on “Hand in Glove,” he must have taken Moz literally—or at least taken the metaphor to heart. As leader of the up-to-40-strong indie-pop collective known as the Hidden Cameras, the 27-year-old Toronto resident has poeticized the male posterior in a way that should resonate with those who’ve admired the fine piece of anonymous ass on the cover of that debut Smiths 7-inch. Witness the opening number on the Cameras’ breakthrough LP, 2003’s The Smell of Our Own: “The golden stone builds the golden road to heaven/Held up high by golden streams of ice/My golden bone meets the golden bun/Buns held high in our dreams of men.”
The track, naturally, is called “Golden Streams,” and though the words might not be very Morrissey-like, the message certainly is: If gay love isn’t better than straight, it at the very least deserves to be celebrated that way in song—preferably something in the way of a silly little pop song, with a silly little melody, a silly little chorus, and silly little over-romanticized lyrics. Of course, the Smiths weren’t really all that silly, but you get the idea. And if you understand that when Morrissey proclaimed, in “Girlfriend in a Coma,” “I know/I know—it’s really serious,” he didn’t, you get the idea even more.
Gibb, too, prefers his pop funny and sharp and tuneful. A dose of perversity doesn’t hurt, either—though it should be pointed out that “Golden Streams” isn’t really about golden showers. No, Gibb’s thing is more along the lines of Smell’s first single, “Ban Marriage,” a rejoinder to the gay-marriage movement that asks why its proponents haven’t bothered to question what it means to participate in an admittedly ailing—and very straight—institution. Oh, and he also likes guys in uniform—their bonds, if not their servitude: “Taking out his hand/He lifts me up and we both stand/We could be in the army or the klan/’Cause when we’re brothers in blood then we are brothers in band.” In any case, the music is stunning: a jangly, postpunky rush inherited from, yes, the Smiths; a fondness for plinking and whirring things shared with the Magnetic Fields; a tendency toward orchestral lushness that recalls the psych-pop of the Left Banke and the Beach Boys as well as those little symphonies for the kids of an earlier era.
Gibb has described the new Mississauga Goddam as a “more romantic” record than The Smell of Our Own, and he’s right. Though most Smell tracks could be accurately described as love songs, many of them also contain some element of personal manifesto, some declaration of membership in Gibb’s self-defined band of brothers. On the new record, the groups of men are rarely larger than pairs—even on the album’s most obvious raison d’être anthems: “Music Is My Boyfriend” is about two, um, guys; “I Believe in the Good of Life” is really about just one.
Still, Mississauga Goddam’s lovey-dovey numbers constitute less an endorsement of coupledom than a notebook on intimacy, and as such, each is much more concerned with the idiosyncratic than the universal. That’s not to say they’re exclusionary musings, however. Even in its most personal moments—“I washed his dirty underwear, he made me toast”—the wah-vs.-cello tribute “Music Is My Boyfriend” never loses sight of its metaphor: “I found music, and he found me:/A balding headbanging preteen, so he seduced me in a dream.” It should be a recognizable conceit to anyone who’s ever found himself completely and incontrovertibly altered by an encounter with organized sound—even if in Gibb’s telling it’s followed by a less-typical scenario: “I kissed his ugly gangly greens, he swallowed my pee.”
Gibb’s frankness about the body’s fluids and functions isn’t a declaration of some specific fetish so much as a fetishization of the body as a whole, in all its hirsute, excretory glory. The celebratory tone applies to what goes in, too: The “fellowship of beef” consummated in “In the Union of Wine” is marked by inhaling “the odour of the refined,” and the, ahem, coming-together depicted in “That’s When the Ceremony Starts” is nothing less than a holy communion, complete with bread, wine, and a line about cleaning a lover’s feet. Though the foot imagery in particular connotes the Last Supper, this Baptist-raised singer’s ode to “the man with bread who wakens me” has more thematically in common with the Resurrection: “He curls his breath and turns the dead/It winds inside to fertilize.” If you’ve mislaid your Good Book, don’t worry—the music gets the idea across just fine, with intertwining strings, glockenspiel, and keyboards reaching a thunderous, life-affirming climax halfway through.
By now it should be obvious that Gibb’s eloquence remains consistent from statements of grandiosity to ones of seeming minutiae. And though there’s very little on Mississauga Goddam that recalls the trenchancy of a track such as “Ban Marriage,” no song on the album really requires it, either. Opener “Doot Doot Plot,” for instance, whisks you into a Nick-at-Nite time warp in which radios broadcast anonymous theme songs from anonymous sitcoms, and a lover can be disparaged for “pulling [his] Pol Pot for long enough.” It’s not exactly clear what the former Cambodian dictator has to do with “cooking in your pot for far too long” or “[d]ootl[ing] on the wall of a stall,” but the whole thing would seem to be set in a school where the boys lock more than eyes. Of course, to judge by the music, that stall is less likely to be somewhere near study hall than in the restroom of a swinging cocktail lounge. Swinging as in “Ohhh, behaaayve!”
Elsewhere, the briskly picked guitar figure that opens “Fear Is On” tumbles improbably into full-on symphonic pop, in an arrangement that gallops along like the demented cousin of the William Tell overture even as Gibb declares that “[t]ender touch is an empty life.” He expounds on that emptiness later, in the delicate “We Oh We,” lamenting an absent partner. “All I want is to be in his movie and not just be old worms of yesterday,” he sings. “All I want is to be under his covers and that not just be a time from yesterday.” It’s perhaps the most sobering of the album’s 11 tracks, betraying little of the jubilation that drives “Doot Doot Plot” or the equally catchy “I Want Another Enema,” on which a bouncing bass, churchy organ, and flourishes of timpani sound beneath Gibb’s peculiar admission that “removing hair has taken over my life and I don’t know how to stop.”
When the Cameras were touring to support The Smell of Our Own last year, Gibb was fond of saying that he doesn’t write political songs, personal, sexual, or otherwise. Plenty of critics probably found that hard to square with what they had heard of his band—not to mention pics on its Web site that showed members holding placards reading, “THEY DON’T NEED A CURE THEY NEED A WAR!,” “BREAD STEALERS WIN!,” and, of course, “THERE IS SPLENDOUR IN THE HARSHNESS OF BUM.” They’ll find it even harder now that Gibb has written a couple of songs that are nothing but politic, body not included. “Bboy” finds the former semiotics student unpacking Americans’ conception of the black man, wielding the word “Dullsville,” and having only limited success. Mississauga Goddam’s title track is a small improvement, a sly swipe from Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” that scathingly indicts Gibb’s suburban hometown as…well, Dullsville.
The song, of course, is all about self-mythologizing, and though it’s true that Gibb has done it better before, don’t hold that too much against him: He sings the thing like he means it, high and clear and beautiful, and it’s as slow-building and sparkly as you could want, closing with a descending guitar line that sounds just like church bells at Christmastime. And if Mississauga Goddam doesn’t compare to The Smell of Our Own in terms of statement-making, so be it: It’s still a lovely album about loving, and Joel Gibb has already stood up for himself. At this point, he deserves to take at least one record lying down.CP