Pretty orchestral lit-pop fails to live up to the promise of its tag-line: 'gay church folk music'.
I suppose we're meant to appreciate the Hidden Cameras' agenda of activism. On their third album, AWOO, political statements and forthrightly gay imagery swirl unobtrusively around most of the songs, until you reach the penultimate track. The opening lines of "Hump From Bending" ring out, loud and clear: "I've had it with the present laws of this awful state! / The bleeding heart suffers eternally". It's a jarring reminder of the band's previously brazen political persona, which just goes to show the decidedly unconfrontational road the Hidden Cameras have chosen to take for this record. Though much was made over the sexually explicit images of homosexuality that have cropped up in singer Joel Gibb's lyrics in the past, on AWOO the status is more of an accepted norm; Gibb sings love songs to a 'he' instead of a 'she'.
Perhaps because of this promise of an intelligent stand against injustice, I was looking for more depth to the Hidden Cameras' poetry. Overtly general lyrics can, of course, reveal general truth; or they can be nonsensical. The chorus from "Learning the Lie" is typical -- you be the judge:
Learning the lie
Is like living the life.
Instead, Gibb uses clichés casually -- "walk the talk" slips into "Lollipop", the album's most involved metaphor -- and the overt nature of the music and the forward-placed lyrics almost turn this into a parody of "deep" indie pop.
What these songs really come to resemble is the genre of the musical; pastoral orchestral pop, you could call it, with a very forthright, occasionally warbling melody sung in Gibb's hearty baritone. "Heaven Turns To" and "Wandering" typify this style; the former with its rotund delivery and emphasizing oboe slide, and the latter with its swirling vibraphone and piano accompaniment.
Elsewhere, though, this brand of orchestral lit-pop is truly lovely. The title track has an easy, Graceland-era guitar accompaniment and a chorus that blossoms just as easily, the violin
countermelody a nice addition. "The Death of a Tune" blithely shifts from the galloping rhythm of the verses to a lush, fully satisfying chorus. And disc highlight "Follow These Eyes" uses a full-sounding string pizzicato and tremolo accompaniment, like some ghostly, positive version of "There There"'s skeleton-jingle.
But pretty as this all is, some of the songs on AWOO come to sound uneasily similar after a few listens. "The Waning Moon", though it is open and bright, is melodically similar to "Awoo" and in instrument and temperament to "Fee Fie". It's also easy to notice that many of the choruses are joyous wails without words, the appeal of which wanes over the course of the disc.
In the end, AWOO disappoints not on the strength of its music, which is accomplished if not particularly thrilling, but from a sense of missed potential. Sure, these songs are well-constructed and well-performed, but the potential to jolt the listener with real insight or real advocacy seems to be let slip downstream. Perhaps Gibbs has been mellowing out recently; but we would all benefit from his stoking the collective fire once again.