No idle threat
Idlewild transitions from scabrous punks to balladeers
Some things are lost in translation. Others, however, gain unexpected meaning.
Scotland's Idlewild has inadvertently reinterpreted American indie rock, as only a band that's on the outside looking in can. Led by Roddy Woomble, Idlewild has moved from the sharp, coarse riffing on 1999's Hope Is Important to the more mature, varied rock of its two most recent albums, 2002's The Remote Part and this year's Warnings/Promises. The band has imbued the deliberately amateurish and unfussed sound of archetypal indie rock with an ambition that is as laudable as it is contentious.
"You can't plan too many of these creative things," says Woomble of the band's more mannered direction that began with 2000's 100 Broken Windows. "We never sat around the table and said, 'This is how it's going to be different this time.' We just played through the mistakes and tried to learn something from them." Nonetheless, Woomble concedes that the band did make a conscious effort to move away from the more rigid indie sound of its early records, even if it didn't necessarily plan the form its escape would take. Idlewild wound up shelving the crashing, cacophonous tributes to Superchunk and the Pixies for the more anthemic, sweeping gestures of vintage R.E.M. Woomble's newfound soothing timbre also reflects the band's decidedly relaxed musical disposition.
In hindsight, Woomble supposes that the most likely impetus for the musical revelation of 100 Broken Windows was the fickle and critical nature of the indie-rock fans. "There are so many [indie] dorks who just nitpick all the time — those kids who will just pee their pants over the latest TV on the Radio B-side." Rather than seek said indie kids' acceptance with a series of increasingly obtuse records, Woomble instead openly courted a much wider audience with subsequent Idlewild records. The Remote Part and Warnings/Promises feature several radio-ready songs, even if their grandly melodic choruses are somewhat undercut by Woomble's academic musings. Perhaps Woomble can't wholly give himself over to the idea of chart success or, more likely, the remnants of the band's early aesthetic are a bit harder to shake than he might have expected.
"I think it's very much a transitional record for me," says Woomble of Warnings/Promises, a record that in many ways underscores the tension between the band's indie roots and its commercial ambition. "I realize that's not a selling point, but it was very valuable, and I think ultimately what [Warnings/Promises] made me do was think about what we could do next. It was pretty much like cleansing the palette musically."
In the interest of finding a fresh starting point for the next record, Woomble opened the door to the past, engaging in a sort of binge and purge. "We explored a bunch of different things — punk rock, indie rock — and we wanted to strip everything back and let what we had in the band show through." Warnings' less-focused song cycle serves as a translation for fans who were unable to reconcile the scrappy band they fell in love with and the one that penned a song as unabashedly huge as "American English." Idlewild also reclaims some of the feverish immediacy of its early records, allowing it to accent to the more assured songwriting that it cemented on The Remote Part. It's not an apology to the fans of the early records, though it might be mistakenly interpreted as such. Idlewild just lets them know what they've been missing by reverting to some familiar vocabulary — as if to say the language never changed, only a few of the rules.