The Romantic Fence

Idlewild may mix post-Brit Pop identities, but the tension helped the Scots make one of the year's best albums

Idlewild formed in an era when rockin' in the U.K. was as close to trendy as it's been in recent memory. "We came up in 1995 and 1996. Everything was Oasis and Blur," says Roddy Woomble, lead singer of the band, a five-piece from Edinburgh, Scotland, whose new album The Remote Partis one of the most unapologetically romantic rock records in ages. "I never liked Blur. We weren't into Brit Pop at all."

Damon Albarn of Blur and Noel Gallagher of Oasis could have their Lennonesque fits of self-importance and their public pissing matches. The soft-spoken, introspective Woomble says his band preferred the nice-guy, do-it-yourself post-punk route. No overthinking, no hype, just focus. Slowly though, the band developed a chemistry and discovered pop hooks. In some respects, Idlewild can now out-pop Blur, and their sound recalls the richness and fire of the early R.E.M. catalogue without diving into its pretentious clichés. At times, they ratchet up the volume more than Peter Buck ever did.

Listeners can credit the 26-year-old Woomble's honest and passionate lyricism for putting Idlewild increasingly on the worldwide hipster radar, much to his chagrin. "We're still seen as this indie-punk cult band," he says, "which is surprising because we're more mainstream back in the U.K. But everywhere else, we're a cult act."

Idlewild: Preserving romanticism for radio-friendly ears.
Idlewild: Preserving romanticism for radio-friendly ears.

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Well, not quite: The band hasachieved enough of a buzz in the States after receiving four-star Rolling Stone reviews for The Remote Part, and a previous effort, 100 Broken Windows, to be opening for Pearl Jam on the Seattle veterans' latest U.S. tour. But point well taken. Woomble's band takes an approach fast becoming invisible on pop radio -- a throwback to the British bands of the early '80s that blended efficient, glistening pop with often-uncomfortable confession subversively thrown into the mix. Fail to listen closely, and you miss what seems to be a compelling, literate internal battle.

In Woomble's case, he seems to be stuck in perpetual overthinker's mode, sorting out the moments in relationships where the questions and the answers both change, and indulging in soliloquies about his own decision-making. At times, he seems obsessed about his obsessive nature. Woomble, though, deflects any outward discussion of his motivations, fears and peccadilloes. He's a team player. In his estimation, his offerings are as technical in the band's composition as Rod Jones' textured guitars and Colin Newton's tasteful drumming. "Sometimes I think songs are overanalyzed," he says in rather standard rock 'n' roll tongue. The fans, he says, just want something they can enjoy and digest. "A lot of people think, This song sounds good,' and it's as simple as that."

Yet later, he says, "Any good song questions something." So then what is it he's questioning? "A lot of it is more about the relationship with yourself."

Indeed, on "American English," one of the prettier songs on The Remote Part, Woomble sings, "Keep singing a song about myself/Not some invisible world," as resonant guitars paint the corners of an acoustic riff. Later in the hushed coda, he croons, "You'll find what you find when you find there's nothing."

The album mirrors that kind of disappointment and uneasiness through the course of all 11 songs and 38 minutes. Woomble's heart seems committed, but he admonishes himself for it. "Isn't it romantic, to be romantic, when you don't understand what you love," he sings on the fuzzed-out, angular "Century After Century." Most of these lines are vague (Could he be talking of the whole writer's process and ego with that "Century After Century" line?). But Idlewild is at its best when the singer is clear and engaged, as on the gorgeous album closer "In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction," where he laments a false romantic start with this plea for salvation: "And even if the breath between us smells of alcohol/Call it confusion in the best way possible." In other words, his is a soundtrack for heart-stricken young guys barking at the moon everywhere.

And that connotes a higher purpose, or at least that's the image Idlewild would hope to project. On the back of The Remote Part's liner notes lies the inscription "Support your local poet." The band in fact does, inviting Edwin Morgan, the Poet Laureate of Scotland, to contribute verse to "In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction" ("It isn't in the mirror, it isn't on the page/It's a red hearted vibration," the croaky Morgan delivers).

"I'm definitely into poetry as much as into writing lyrics," Woomble says. Then he pauses, citing fans as young as 14. Jokingly, he adds, "I've realized I'm in the minority."

The band recorded The Remote Partin 2001, at first recording with Smiths producer Stephen Street and then mostly scrapping the results and starting over. Since then, it also has undergone several lineup changes, losing original bassist Bob Fairfoull, replacing him with Gavin Fox and adding touring guitarist Allan Stewart as a full-time member. Woomble says he has no notion of where the happier, more energetic lineup heads next. For now, they're just focused on the road, where they figure to be all summer as more people catch on to The Remote Part. The tour with Pearl Jam started last week in the expansiveness of Missoula, Montana, solidifying the journey for Woomble as Idlewild continues to straddle fences between pop and punk, between mainstream and cult, romanticism and musical proficiency.

"We've seen more of America than most Americans have at this point," Woomble says, laughing.

 
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