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The Best Rock Band in the World
397 · 5 September 02
Idlewild: The Remote Part
As I have said before and now reemphasize in preparation for transgressing anew, there is no reason for you to care what I say the Best anything is. "Best", in these labels, signifies nothing. If I have done my job well, or the part of my job that involves individual albums of popular music, all I can hope for is 1) that from my descriptions of what moves me you can guess, slightly more often than not, whether there's a chance you, too, might be moved by whatever it is, and/or 2) that your experience of some music may be marginally more engaged or nuanced or indelible or something as a result of having my notes from my experience to further inform your own. These may not seem like very ambitious goals, but anybody who claims to be accomplishing more than that with the actual record-reviewing part of record reviewing is either delusional or duplicitous, and don't be quick to rule out the idea that they're both. Sheer magnitude of affection is so unlikely to translate from one person's experience to another that the only sensible thing to do is to disregard it entirely.
"Best Rock Band" is inane on two counts, because while "Rock" isn't as semantically empty as "Best", it's a couple of orders of magnitude too vague and subjective to constitute a scale along which anything can be practically measured. What is Rock and what isn't? Who is More Rock, K's Choice or Buffalo Tom? Neko Case or Jolene? Christine Fellows or Shiina Ringo? Good luck forming any consensus. We might be able to get somewhere in evaluating "Most Melodic Death-Metal Band With a Non-Melodic Male Vocalist", or "Least Dated-Sounding Twenty-Year-Old Synth-Pop Album". Maybe. The more specific the category, the clearer its boundaries and the less ambiguous the notion of directionality, the more tractable the problem, but if you can't measure it with instruments, somebody is bound to earnestly disagree with you. (Even when you can measure it with instruments, sometimes.) "Best Music" is total nonsense, and Best Rock Band is a small enough improvement to be eradicated by rounding off.
All this sober acknowledgement, however, hasn't so far prevented me from keeping mental note of which rock band I believe currently holds this unassignable distinction. You'll get slightly different answers from me if you ask in different contexts, but sitting in front of my computer in the middle of the night, with no manipulative aim in mind, I believe through a combination of old notes and revisionist hindsight I can nominate a continuous lineage of Best Rock Bands for the twenty-four years of what I consider my useful musical awareness: The Jam (1978-1980), Rush (1981-1982), Big Country (1983-1986), the Pixies (1987-1988), partially-concurrent crowns for Fugazi (1989-1990) and Marillion (1989-1991), Manic Street Preachers (1992-1993), Guided by Voices (1994), Everclear (1995-1997) and Sarge (1998-2000), and if I'd had to pick a band for 2001 before now, it would have been Jimmy Eat World.
If you agree with me, however, that music is only really effectively categorized by example, then this list is definitional, if not tautological: by "rock" I mean a kind of music that the Jam, Rush, Big Country, the Pixies, Fugazi, Marillion, Manic Street Preachers, Guided by Voices, Everclear, Sarge and Jimmy Eat World could be said to have epitomized at various times. Distilling an abstract schema out of these examples would be quite a trick. Rush and Marillion push the boundaries further into the progressive spectrum than many people would countenance, the Pixies and Fugazi probably push them further into punk. The list is very white, very male, fairly British and noticeably sentimental. It's big on guitars, but distinctly non-improvisational, and non-blues-based. A good argument could be made, for that matter, that this is really the Best Rock Band list of a pop fan, and a rock fan's rock list would rock much harder. Where are AC/DC, Aerosmith and Guns N' Roses, after all? Van Halen? On a more conventional album-rock axis, what about Dire Straits, Petty and the Heartbreakers or Springsteen and the E Street Band? I'm sure we could find traditionalists to stick up for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones or the Who as late as 1978. Looking later, what about U2, REM or the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Nirvana or Pearl Jam? Sleater-Kinney or Sonic Youth? I suspect Oasis, the Black Crowes and Nine Inch Nails, at least, would nominate themselves. Alternately, contrast Roxette, Low, Runrig, the Loud Family and the Magnetic Fields (and non-bands Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette), all of whom have featured prominently in my equally ridiculous year-end best-of lists but don't qualify as rock, to me, in the same sense.
Whatever it is we're left with, in this field of conflicting forces, Idlewild are officially my new nominees for the working band best at it. The Remote Part, their third album, will be a 2003 release in the US, and I'm inclined to also retroactively promote last year's 100 Broken Windows, their second, so they may now already account for 2001-2003 on my timeline. They are finally, to me, the fruition of all the potential I thought I heard in Vent 414, the Stereophonics, Longpigs, Kenickie, Puressence and Geneva, the resuscitators of Everclear's headlong drive from before they succumbed to diminishing returns, and the heirs of the expansive melancholy the Manic Street Preachers never managed to reclaim after Gold Against the Soul. If my other choices strike you as dour and uptight, without nearly enough raunch or swagger, Idlewild aren't going to do anything to change your opinion. I've seen them live, and they weren't especially charismatic. They're probably too thoughtful to be glamorous, too sincere to be cool, and too old-fashioned to spawn any new trends, but Best Rock Band is not a vanguard position, it's a consolidation of prevailing values. It's a consolidation of my prevailing values, of course, not ones that are necessarily prevailing anywhere outside of my head, and it's appropriately uncooperative of me to pick a champion whose US release schedule lags their European one by a calendar year, but I can't help that. The American music industry thinks you're too stupid to figure out how to buy imports, or too cheap (or, if you aren't American, that you don't exist), but the internet doesn't care about borders, and if getting the new album by the Best Rock Band in the World six months early isn't worth an extra euro or two to you, what is?
In the parts of the world where there were advance singles for this album, the first one was "You Held the World in Your Arms", and Idlewild responsibly adhere to my first rule of advance-single handling, which is that any album tracks commercially available for more than a month before the album's release must be placed first on the record, in the order of exposure. I grant that this constrains your choice of far-advance singles to the kind of song you'd want to open an album with, but that is my second rule of advance-single handling. (Then again, I also think movie trailers should consist of the first two minutes of the movie, so one doubts there are many lucrative media-consulting gigs in my immediate future.) "You Held the World in Your Arms", as a single, augured an epic, explosive, kinetic, redemptive album, and when I hear it again to start the record, I am immediately (and idiotically) reassured that it is going to turn out to be representative. Rod Jones's guitars roar and squawk, Colin Newton's cymbals splash and his drums hitch and sputter, Roddy Woomble's warm voice still sighs decisively. The kamikaze string waves won't recur, but first songs are a big deal, easily worth blowing one or two of your one-use tricks.
The first non-single is the first moment of album truth, and Idlewild go straight for broke with the thrashing "A Modern Way of Letting Go". The title sounds suspiciously coy and Belle and Sebastian-ish, but the song, two and a half minutes at a totally un-coy crushing speed, sounds like the Foo Fighters after a productive week of master-classes with Lemmy and a lot of extra time rewatching the loud parts of the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video. Jones and bassist Bob Fairfoull stomp on all available pedals, and at one key moment toward the end the usually composed Woomble screams a single word to push the song to an 11 beyond the instrumental roar's 10.
My third rule of advance-single handling is that there should be no more and no less than two of them, no more because that's as much of a new album's newness I want compromised, and no less because with two you can give some idea of the album's stylistic range, which is what people wondering whether they'll like it most likely need to hear. The second single should (rule four) come out a couple weeks before the album, and ideally should (rule five, although exceptions to this one are fairly common) appear towards the beginning of the record. The Remote Part's second single was the meditative "American English", which takes on an even more contemplative tone as the album's third track, after "A Modern Way of Letting Go"'s chaos. A pinging electric-guitar hook, calm acoustic strumming and a pulsing bass under the first verse all pleasantly (for me) evoke Lanois-era U2, but Woomble's gruff, intimate delivery affects none of Bono's ostentation. "You've contracted American dreams", he starts, but this turns out to be a vaguely rueful idea rather than a topical critique, and probably works just as well if you don't realize Idlewild are Scottish. The guitar, bass and lead vocals of "I Never Wanted" are all in approximately the same mode ("American English"'s echoey hook replaced by an E-Bow line, although one without any of Big Country's bagpipe intonations), but Woomble adds a couple of reassuringly artless backing-vocal rondos, and Newton does the other 90% of the work of differentiating the song by giving it an inspiredly pattery drum part that sounds like he's consumed enough coffee to induce involuntary twitching and then crawled inside a contact-miked cardboard box.
"I Never Wanted" ends with a single tendril of guitar feedback dying away, and although there are actually a couple seconds of silence between that and the beginning of the squalling hook that opens "(I Am) What I Am Not", the two noises come close enough to matching that I pretty much experience it as a continuous transition. "(I Am) What I Am Not" isn't quite as fast as "A Modern Way of Letting Go", and has some abstract rumbling interludes that further slow the apparent pace, but the atmospheric density is very similar, and Woomble skids along the edge of his dynamic range again. The transition to "Live in a Hiding Place" is the inversion of the preceding one, electric feedback butting up against a poised acoustic-guitar figure, but "Live in a Hiding Place" turns out to be more complicated than the opening indicates. A haunting falsetto harmony joins in in the second half of the verses, quarter-note snare snaps presage the chorus, and somebody uncredited doubles the chorus's guitar hook with an impishly plinky piano, the combination ending up something like Hunters and Collectors' "Throw Your Arms Around Me" half retrofitted to the Harold & Maude soundtrack. I'm caught still pondering this when "Out of Routine" blasts in, sweeping the H&C echoes up in a cheerful surge that for me justifies both my ousting Jimmy Eat World from the 2001 slot, and my never again bothering to listen to anything by the Foo Fighters.
The closest this album comes to evasive is next, "Century After Century", with some processed-distance vocals, oscillator-blare guitar and distracted piano, but any momentary Gang of Four twinges are quickly dispelled by what might be the album's prettiest song, "Tell Me Ten Words". Mandolin-ish guitar crinkle borders the verses, and although the chorus guitars are still wall-like, Woomble's elegantly weary delivery turns them into a backdrop. "Can you tell me ten words that you'd use / To describe the world / To people, though people never seem to know?", he wonders, as if half in response to his own doubts about words and language elsewhere on the album. "All these things that you don't know, / It seems so much better that way." But "seems" is the operative word. "Stay the Same" revs up one last time, Newton smashing anything still standing. "All of this is just so we won't stay the same!" Prevailing values is not the same as stasis, after all. Rock is a disruptive form. My Best Rock Band picks all represent directions of movement, not fixed points, and even the segments of my timeline that involve retreats from noise (Marillion circa Holidays in Eden, Manic Street Preachers on parts of Gold Against the Soul) are more defense-as-attack than resignation, outrage otherwise channeled.
This is how Idlewild end The Remote Part, too, with the muted sparkle of "In Remote Part" giving way to a guitar-noise honor guard for Glaswegian Poet Laureate Edwin Morgan's reading of his own short poem "Scottish Fiction". "Support your local poet", it says on the back of the booklet, so apparently Woomble doesn't distrust other people's language as much as he distrusts his own. I don't normally recommend ending an album with somebody else's words, particularly when they're rather more coherent than your own (Morgan's poem is a brief disquisition on the nature of Scottish identity, and at most the rest of the album edges around the idea of identity in general), but rock albums, even the best ones, are not reading texts. Paul Weller managed a few trenchant insights, Neil Peart is a serious lyricist if you don't find Ayn Rand laughable, and Elizabeth Elmore is a real writer in her own mode, but this has never been an intellectual distinction. Rock is, in my usual pop/rock/metal taxonomy, about sound (pop about melody, metal about power), and one of the many things listening to a lot of Japanese music I don't understand yet has clearly demonstrated for me is that although the human voice is my single favorite sound, and I like it best when it's forming sounds it cares about, I don't have to care about them the same way, or indeed at all. In part, mind you, this is why Best Rock Band has only been the same as My Favorite Musician three times out of eleven, as in the other eight cases the people I like better are almost invariably more sophisticated lyricists. But rock is a meta-text, and Best Rock Band rock is a meta-meta-text about the first meta-text. Morgan's rejoinder to Scottish poetic tradition is apt ("It isn't in the castle, it isn't in the mist"); putting Idlewild next on my list is as much an expression of what I hate and distrust as it is of what I love and believe, a particular stance at least as significant for what it defies as what it faces. There are no gadgets here, no samples, no quoting, no mannerisms borrowed from other styles. The Remote Part is a focused album, almost to the point of obliviousness, and if we differ, one of the ways may be that records like this (and even more so The Crossing and Steeltown) seem claustrophobic or unimaginative to you. All the bands on my list, in fact, share a sort of narrowness of purpose, and while this too has its tautological aspects (obviously albums I single out as the epitome of a specific form will tend to be ones that state solely the themes of that form), the non-obvious point is that I would much rather have five albums that each say one clear thing than five albums that all try to balance all five ideas, no matter how cleverly. Or I'd rather have just one album that says one clear, unique thing, and then the other four can be whatever they want. Rock is neither the limit nor the apex of my taste, but it's a crucial point of reference. I don't think I could appreciate gadgets the same way without also loving what can be done without them. I wouldn't have been ready to love Game Theory's Lolita Nation so much if I hadn't loved Steeltown first (nor in turn "Mammoth Gardens" without Scott's own songs). Idlewild's reticence is part of why I love Roxette's exuberance, and vice versa, which is what's both right and wrong about saying I have a pop fan's rock list. You always navigate from what you know. Even the geography matters: Idlewild makes it two from Scotland, one from Wales, two from England and one from Canada, and all five American bands on the list have very specific regional ties. Rock, for me, is rooted in actual places, and without these points on my map, I might not be as ready for Tori Amos to sound like she comes from outer space. And so, while knowing my votes for the best rock band in the world isn't going to help you, knowing your own vote might. Statistically speaking, it's probably not Idlewild (although if you're between choices, it couldn't hurt much to investigate). Our definitions of "rock" are probably different, and for all I know our sets of advance-single rules are not only different but fundamentally incompatible. Those are exactly the castles and mists that it's not in. We don't have to agree, and we need not even hope to. Music doesn't hold us together, it drives us together. We each find the exact noises against which we are most helpless, and then, equal in our helplessness, we turn to each other for the comfort of knowing we're not alone.