"Is this R.E.M.?" the gal innocently asked me recently while I was playing album
#5 from Scottish scamps Idlewild. Informed that it wasn't, she was all "Well,
isn't that Michael Stipe doing a guest vocal?"
I assured her it was not. Then I fell into a funk. I'd been served. Idlewild,
long hailed as "the new R.E.M.," had indeed jumped the shark and landed in wannabe
waters, swimming in a sea of sound-alikes. But how did it come to this?
Looking back through the Idlewild scrapbook something the band cautioned us against with the warning to "Stop looking through scrapbooks and photograph albums" on 2000's 100 Broken Windows reveals a band that long struggled against two competing drives, the urge to make a raucous ruckus and the desire to say and be something big and meaningful, and go down in musical history.
This tension was there on "Self-Healer," track one of their debut mini-album Captain,
Rod Jones' skuzzy guitar underpinning Roddy Woomble's boyish vocals, the singer
repeatedly insisting "A song is a beautiful lie," telegraphing a theme he'd return
to on one of the band's strongest latter-day tracks, "American English" (from
2002's The Remote Part), though by then Jones and the rhythm section had
learned to play nice and anthemic and Woomble's voice had passed through puberty.
The first full-length, 1998's Hope Is Important, still found the rock
running roughshod over the poetry, while 100 Broken Windows displayed
a perfect balance, super-strong melodies coated in sandpaper, Woomble's cleverness
shining throughout. The Remote Part showed Idlewild trying to have it
both ways through a fairly even mixture of songs that kept their punk roots showing
and a number of introspective ballads that showcased the band's new approach
with acoustic instruments before they took the material into the studio.
Charges of awkward grown-up tendencies aside, the problem with Warnings/Promises is
the material: the band failed to bring enough good song ideas with them when
they went into the studio with producer Tony Hoffer (Beck, The Thrills, Stars,
etc.). Ambitious arrangements that emphasize strings, piano, acoustic guitars,
and vocal harmonies fail to mask the lack of infectious hummable melodies here.
The succession of tiny piano and guitar flourishes featured on "El Capitan" just
demonstrates that a preponderance of pretty bits doesn't add up to a cohesive
the band saw fit to release the track as a single.
"Not Just Sometimes" comes across as Idlewild's attempt to craft their own "Everybody Hurts," but falls into the same morass as the majority of REM's latter-day string-laden songs, down to Woomble's Stipe-aping vocal on the verses. Another Edinburgh-by-way-of-Athens, Georgia, rip comes via "I Understand It," the needlessly fussy lyrics delivered in multi-tracked fashion, the seeming Stipe vocal cameo coming on the bridge this time as Woomble strains to push his voice to the upper limits of its range.
The rockier tracks fare no better. The vagaries of leaden lead single "Love Steals Us From Loneliness" finds the listener distracted by the many echoes of older, better Idlewild songs, a sin revisited on "Too Long Awake." "I Want a Warning" suggests the band has forgotten how to rock, Jones' lead guitar taking on a brutally atonal sound akin to a mewling cat, striving for a glam sound the band just isn't equipped to deliver.
In the end, Warnings/Promises displays yet another band that has come to confuse mellowness with maturation, acoustic guitars with adulthood. It wouldn't be too much of a shock to see the band return next time with a harder edge to their sound the worry is that the results will be no more compelling than those found here.