Look Up

As you may have guessed, I've been listening to little else but the Hidden Cameras recently. It all started with an email from Dickon, and then shortly afterwards an envelope from the Rough Trade shop containing two copies of ´Ban Marriage'. I'd never heard the single and yet I bought two copies. Why? Well how could anyone pass on a song called ´Ban Marriage'? How could anyone not know it was going to be a sensation and would therefore need a spare copy to send to a friend in need (or just a friend, indeed)? Or, in this particular case, be slipped inside a plastic bag and attached to a classroom wall for all to see (or ignore completely, as is more often the case).

So every morning and every evening it seems like I'm rotating all my Hidden Cameras recordings: the four tracks of the aforementioned single; the divine The Smell Of Our Own album; the soon to be mythic CBC radio session, complete with banter, interviews and snatch of Madonna's ´Borderline'; the collection of early live performances that provide a sneak snapshot of the Camera's so rapid development. Each and every one a delight that ought to be lighting up everyone's world and that have me proclaiming that for this week at the very least, Hidden Cameras are the greatest band I've ever heard.

I mentioned before too that I thought the CBC session versions of some songs were better then the ones found on the album. Having lived with both a bit longer I'm prepared to offer instead that they are just different; that if the radio sessions appear to be infused with somewhat more life, then the studio versions are instead subtler siblings with all manner of delights lurking just below the surface. Who was it said that God was in the details? I looked around but couldn't find an answer. But I'm sure Douglas Coupland said it at some point (another Canadian!) and that's good enough for me. The details here then would be layers of guitars that rampage like Lou and Sterling; voices that appear from the dark recesses and shine spotlights on your soul (like that falsetto ´woo-woo' moment in ´breathe' which I've said before is the summer of 1983 captured in a fracture of a second); Organ lines that swoop like housemartins, and hmm, isn't one of the organ providers here the semi-legendary Bob Wiseman, collaborator with such luminaries as Mary Margaret O'Hara, Wilco, Eugene Chadbourne and Kid In The Hall Bruce McCulloch? And in fact the Kids In The Hall reference is apt because at times the Hidden Cameras make me think of the essence of so many KITH sketches. They seem imbued with the same playful, irreverent spirit. The same matter-of-fact celebration of homosexuality as one facet of their lives. And there's the rub: Hidden Cameras have perhaps unwittingly labelled themselves as being a ´gay church folk' band. It's something that might stick, might yet become an albatross around their collective gay and hetero necks. Let's hope it's not the case. Let's hope that the record buying public and, more importantly, the media, are more open to such things as they were back in the dark times of the early ´90s when a group such as Kitchen of Distinction could be criminally pigeonholed as being a Gay Group, with almost all of the press being focused on that one issue instead of the astonishing breadth and depth of their sonic Pop masterpieces. Let's hope that Hidden Cameras get all the adoration that they inevitably deserve. And let's hope too that they really didn't cop their name from that Peter Hammill album.
Having mentioned the Kitchens of Distinction, it would seem sensible to add that a copy of their forthcoming Capsule compilation has been vying for stereo time with the Hidden Cameras. That it occasionally wins the competition is testament to the delights they had to offer.

Kitchens of Distinction first came into my world in 1988, when they knocked me for sixes and sevens with a single called ´Prize'. The song seemed to come from nowhere and go everywhere on a wing and a dare. Guitars truly cascaded, let out a Pop Noise that was a sigh, a howl and a lip lifted on lip all at once. I thought that Kitchens of Distinction were the greatest band I'd ever heard. Then as now I was old enough to know better and too young to care.

For a year thereafter Kitchens of Distinction could do no wrong. Another single, the triumphant sci-fi blitz of ´the Third Time We Opened The Capsule' left me dizzy and desperate, whilst their debut album Love Is Hell revolved on my record deck endlessly all through the end of my Art school days and if truth be told was more the sound of the Spring and early Summer 1989 than The Stone Roses ever was. And then, after another fine single in the James Bond meets Holly Golightly ´Quick As Rainbows' I lost interest. I don't remember now why this was, except that perhaps this is just the nature of Pop.

Listening now to Capsule I'm struck once again by the might of those early singles and album tracks (although being picky I would have preferred the Martin Hannett produced version of ´Quick As Rainbows' to the slightly later one included here). They remain as bastions of muscularly sensitive dreampop from the days before Dreampop. They stand still as monuments of steely eyed sonic mists from a time before shoegazers gave the idea of guitars that swirled a bad name. I'm struck also by the delights I missed in the years that came after Love Is Hell (innumerable singles and three more albums before they called it a day in 1996): by the smokescreen beauty of ´Railwayed', the dynamic push and shove of ´Drive that Fast' (it took R.E.M.'s ´Losing My Religion' to know it off the top of the US college radio charts), the witty take on Elizabeth Smart of ´On Tooting Broadway Station'; the huge country-tinged ache of ´Remember Me'.

All of these tracks mark the Kitchens of Distinction as one of the great forgotten groups of the late ´80s and early ´90s, and if the sleeve for Capsule is a far cry from the amazing treasures created by Me Company for the first releases, well that's just another reason for scouring the second hand shops for the originals.
A while back a friend whose taste is to be trusted suggested I check out the latest solo offering from Hefner drummer Antony Harding. At the time I'm afraid to say I didn't, but I've since made up for that mistake by checking out his new Floating On The Breeze mini album. Antony records his solo affairs under the name Ant, and as Ant he daydreams in a world full of melodicas, congas, ukuleles, xylophones and acoustic guitars. Ant writes songs that scuff through beach showers, desert boots whitened from the salt, gulls crying overhead, embers from fires long since scattered to the westerlies. Listening to Ant is like listening to the singer from All About Chad listening to The Marine Girls listening to Dave Davies. Which, in case you aren't as educated as you ought to be, is pretty damn fine.

Like John Carney, I loved the recent Sea And Cake Album One Bedroom because it sounded just like the Sea and Cake. That was all anyone needed to know. Now I love the Sea And Cake's new seven track album Glass because it doesn't really sound like the Sea and Cake at all. It kicks off with two radically different versions of the same song, ´To The Author', of which version one sweetly introduces itself as an electro-melodic delight whilst version two swirls like a shower of resistors in a converted steel container, bathed in blue light. After this there's quirky experimentation, a supple live favourite, and a trio of remixes by Stereolab, Broadcast and Carl Craig, all of whom turn in treats, the highlight tonight being Carl Craig's typically robust yet fleet of foot take on ´Hotel Tell' which wraps Archer Prewitt's divine vocal in concrete slabs of beats and techno inflections. With the bonus of a video for their take on Bowie's ´Sound and Vision' by illustrator and former Liquid Liquid bassist Richard McGuire, Glass is a marvellous tangential step for the Sea And Cake. And did I not mention The Feelies?
Back to Canada now. Toronto to be precise (where else?), and a clutch of other recordings that have emanated from that fair city landed in my lap recently. First off there's the wonderful Barcelona Pavilion, who kick off their ´It's The Barcelona Pavilion' 3' CD with a crack at the start of ´Rowche Rumble'. From there it's onto some terrific Devo meets Huggy Bear technopunkpop and songs in German that I don't understand but love regardless. Or because of. I don't know which. They also have another micro credit-card CD single (why aren't all CD singles made this size?) that has a song called ´how are you people going to have fun if none of you people ever participate?' which rightly suggests that Barcelona Pavilion are a group who pay as much attention to manifestos as to music, which of course is what all great groups ought to do. If it was good enough for Dexys and the Dadaists...

Barcelona Pavilion are shot through with wit, wisdom and are probably far too clever for their own good. For which we must be grateful.
We ought also be grateful for another Toronto collective, Broken Social Scene, whose You Forgot It In People album (Arts and Crafts) is a rich tapestry of styles that ought to appeal to anyone seduced by the likes of the Boo Radleys when they were making dub-inflected treasures like ´Lazarus', or the marvels of the Everything's Alright Forever album. With anything up to a dozen members pitching into the fray, Broken Social Scene naturally cover a lot of ground and sound naturally expansive yet intimate. Flutes puncture the ocean roll of guitars, drums and bass; strings sweep up the detritus of the urban early morning street stroll; voices cajole and seduce from alley windows in redbrick walk ups. It's all very post-rock, post-beat, looking for a new definition and forging a new language, and with terrific titles to boot. How can you resist songs called ´late nineties bedroom rock for the missionaries', ´shampoo suicide' or, my favourite, ´anthems for a seventeen year-old girl'? Answer: you can't.

I don't know how Broken Social Scene fit in with the fabled Toronto ´scene'. That's part of the beauty of living in an attic thousands of miles away from the epicentre (of Toronto, of anywhere vaguely culturally intoxicating...), but I do know that this album is going to be playing out of my stereo a lot more over the coming weeks as Spring gathers pace.
Also in tune with the Spring sunshine is Stars' Heart (Setanta). I can't believe it's been three years already since I first heard about Stars in a Manhattan noodle bar; three years since I took off for London on a whim one Saturday morning to spend a sunny late April afternoon watching Stars play in a sweaty Notting Hill basement; three years since I was telling K and anyone else who cared to listen just how special this troupe of strange ex-child star baseball players and movie actors was, and how their songs (then collected on a wonderful CDR of pared down, effusive demos that included a take on ´This Charming Man' and at least three others that were jaw droppingly perfect) were the kinds of things you placed love and devotion within; held close in the dead of night and the heat of the midday sun.

The Stars of three years on is no longer wholly the same band that captivated me, but at least one of the child stars (Torquil) is still there, wearing his Heart on his sleeve. Since then too they have moved around a bit, moving from New York (where they shared floor space with a Yeah Yeah Yeah, trivia fans) to Torquil's native Montreal and now to the hipster magnet that is contemporary Toronto, where they have lent members to the aforementioned Broken Social Scene and of course to their own splendid off-shoot Metric. They've also hardened their sound a bit too, and if I occasionally yearn for the naąve wanton Pop surge of the likes of ´When', well the dynamism of New Order tinted songs like ´Death To Death' and the terrific ´Elevator Love Letter' win me over to the new approach. On several tracks on Heart Stars have employed the skills of Ian Catt, and as well as that New Order influence, its clear that Stars also nod sagely to other Catt-produced groups like St Etienne, Field Mice and their contemporary incarnation Trembling Blue Stars. So whilst the sound is now fuller, harder and if you wanted to be harsh, more indie-rock friendly, the songs are still full of open-eyed wonder, are essentially about infatuation with the notion of infatuation, the ludicrous, inescapable pull of Love and devotion with all its attendant shadows and highlights. And speaking of highlights, well what about the jade canopy that is ´The Woods', complete with sample from an obscure movie about JFK (or something, and ah maybe I'm just making that up, it's hard to make out what Torquil says about it on the tape of that Notting Hill show). Or the Momus-like breath of ´Don't Be Afraid To Sing' that pulses softly in aquamarine. And finally, the oscillating majesty of ´Look Up' in which Amy Millan sings ´you're cold, maybe you just miss the sun', and ´look up. Rain is falling, it looks like love', lines that are so beautifully simple that they say everything you need a song to say. Ever. Which means that ´Look Up' is lying out on the lawn in summer and squinting at the sky, tracing the routes of airplanes skiing across the cornflower blue. Which in fact is Stars all over, is why you should all be clutching their Heart so closely to yours.

© 2003 Alistair Fitchett


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