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[whitespace] Idlewild Art of the Ideals: The members of Idlewild don't don't see any point in replacing their instruments with drum machines and synthesizers.

Keep Hope-Rock Alive

Idlewild hasn't lost the ideals that once mattered in rock

By Gina Arnold

ONE NIGHT LAST WINTER, while living in New York, I went to hear George Stephanopolous speak at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I anticipated seeing Stephanopolous, who helped mastermind Bill Clinton's election in 1992 and who is now a political analyst for various TV news programs, but when I got to the lecture, I sensed that all the students in the audience were irate at him for (a) getting Clinton elected, (b) then leaving him in a lurch and (c) going to work for ABC.

For half an hour or so, Stephanopolous was articulate yet circumspect regarding issues to do with all the usual J-school buzzwords: spin alley, objectivity, gate-keeping, leaks. But when the questions started, he had to endure the rage of 25-year-olds who still seemed to have ideals and therefore considered him a sellout.

The session was all very interesting, but nevertheless, at 8pm, I rose to leave. Forty-five minutes later, I walked into the Mercury Lounge to see the Scottish band Idlewild, whose 1998 record, Hope Is Important, is one of my favorites.

An incongruous pair of events for one evening, true--but in fact, they had something in common, because just like pre-Monica Stephanopolous and last year's J-school graduates, Idlewild has ideals.

That was fully apparent in the band's ecstatic 45-minute performance, which entirely lacked the cynicism of most of today's rock acts, exuding instead a huge amount of joie de vivre. At one point, I recall, the band's singer, Roddy Woomble, leaped into the audience and landed on someone's table--a most un-British thing to do.

I also remember that Woomble sported a handmade T-shirt on which someone had drawn, "I left my [picture of heart] in Lancaster County N.J." Boy did that remind me of my own sweet youth! Every picture tells a story, and that one made me wonder if some girl in New Jersey had created the T-shirt for him the night before.

"Not at all," says Woomble, speaking to me by phone last week in anticipation of Idlewild's first West Coat gig this Saturday in San Francisco. "I had just bought that shirt that morning at a thrift shop in the Village for a dollar, and it seemed somehow appropriate."

It wasn't just the T-shirt that reminded me of my youth that night. It was the music. Like the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Fugazi, Pavement, the Pixies and Superchunk, Idlewild is very much a throwback to the golden days of rock, not the '60s but the '80s, when indie bands roamed the earth, heedless of the fact that the mainstream didn't have the slightest interest in their art.

In those days, while the rest of the world was busy listening to Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson, hardworking bands like Nirvana and Green Day couldn't get arrested. It wasn't until Clinton, with Mr. S's help, was elected that things really changed within American culture.

But now that Bush is president, we're pretty much back where we started. The pop world loves superhyped boys bands and prepackaged rage rock. Simpler bands with less commercial ambitions harbor little hope of being heard.

IDLEWILD IS a throwback to rock's great past in other ways as well. Its members met in art school, just like '60s stars Ray Davies, Rod Stewart and Bryan Ferry. They share a love of American bands like Fugazi, Superchunk and the Minutemen. And finally, unlike so many Brit-pop bands who've shot to the top via television shows, videos and media hype, Idlewild has insisted on doing it the hard way--that is, by touring and word of mouth.

Thus, in the five years since Idlewild began, the band has played the length and breadth of Britain, including gigs in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, which are, as the Scots like to say, closer to Oslo than London.

Idlewild has played at huge festivals, like Reading and T in the Park, and at tiny community centers, like the one featured in the movie Local Hero, to audiences ranging from age 8 to 50. (Those shows, says Woomble, "are incredibly satisfying.")

As a result, Idlewild are that rarest of rarities: a British band that plays well live. And thanks to all that touring and two phenomenal LPs, Hope Is Important and 100 Broken Windows, each of which have scored Top-20 hits in Britain, Idlewild has garnered its share of rave reviews, including accolades from the British press, which called 1999's Hope "a perfect record."

Now--finally--Idlewild is poised to take on America. Well, sort of. "I just hate that term, 'breaking in America,' Woomble says. "I mean--what's it supposed to mean? Up until now, our tactic has been to let things trickle out. That is, have people discover us on their own."

To that end, the band hasn't really concentrated on America, where Hope Is Important was belatedly released by Capitol Records to no fanfare whatsoever last year. This month, Capitol is releasing Idlewild's year-old record, 100 Broken Windows, in the U.S., and it looks as if the label may even be pushing the album, despite the fact that plain bands in sweaty T-shirts who play guitars and drums, write poetic lyrics and don't rap, rage or dance in sync, are as distinctly out of fashion as boys in holey sweaters and flannel shirts were in 1985.

Idlewild doesn't fit the mold of the bands that get played on Total Request Live, but neither does it care to. In a way, the band's attitude is reminiscent of the hippie kids in the '80s who wore tie-dyed clothes and followed the Grateful Dead around even as the band was on its last legs. So I wonder if, at age 23, Woomble considers himself a little out of the loop from his peers, who are listening to trance or dance music by Mogwai, Cold Play and Moby.

"I suppose it does seem a little dated," Woomble admits. "We're not the most modern bands in terms of influences. But you have to be honest with your ability and what you want to do with it. There's no point in getting drum machines and synths if you hate them."

100 Broken Windows was actually recorded in America--in Chicago, with Shellac producer Bob Weston. Woomble himself, though Scottish through and through, lived in America when he was 13, in South Carolina of all places. Of course, he says, "I was just your typical teenager and into bad heavy metal."

Luckily for him, he had a friend whose brother was in a band, who gave him tapes of the Minutemen, the Descendants, All and Fugazi. And his sister, he adds, "was into the Smiths, Elvis Costello and R.E.M."

THE DAMAGE was done. When Woomble returned to the small town in Scotland where he grew up, he lived for the day he could move to the city to meet people with the same interests. At 18, he got a place in a film and photography course at college in Edinburgh. "But my priority was forming a band. I just wanted to meet people, and the very first week I met Rod [Jones, the band's guitarist]."

Roddy and Rod soon joined forces with Bob Fairfoull and Colin Newton to form Idlewild (which they named for Anne of Green Gables' hiding place). Within two years, they were the Next Big Thing in England, a title they didn't take too seriously. English journalists, Woomble explains, delight in building people up and then tearing them down.

Besides, he adds, "There was a point where we were getting slagged off for being just this teenage punk band, and I thought, 'I don't want to be rolling about on the floor when I'm 30,' so we tried some different things in the studio. We listened to some other types of music, like PIL, but it didn't sound good at all when we did it. You have to be honest. In the end, everyone is just playing C, D and G--it's what you bring to it that changes it. It's true our music isn't radically different, but I do think there's a freshness to it."

And I think so, too, although it's hard to say why. Perhaps the freshness comes from the lyrics, which manage to be introspective and poetic without being trite or pretentious. Certainly, Hope Is Important, with its buoyant and tuneful songs like "I Am a Message" and "When We Argue, I See Shapes," breathed life in the three-chord punk-rock genre. And 100 Broken Windows continues in that direction.

According to Woomble, 100 Broken Windows is "about dissatisfaction," but one of the record's more satisfying aspects is its poesy. Woomble says he's been reading Orkney Island poet George Mackay Brown; and there is also a song called "Roseability" that is a tribute to Gertrude Stein. "I realize there's a danger of dropping in literary references," he confesses, "because you come across like a tortured young poet. But you also give the listener something back in the process."

Idlewild will be playing quite near Stein's old stomping ground Oakland this week, at a free in-store at Mod Lang Records in Berkeley, before shooting across the Bay to appear at the Bottom of the Hill on March 13. The gig sold 200 tickets more than a month ago, which may indicate something about the tide of popular opinion: for instance, that it craves bands that possess a measure of integrity. If so, then Idlewild has a big future ahead. I sure hope so anyway--and hope is important.

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From the March 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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