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Remote Control

Idlewild's melodic approach clicks on its latest album.


Rod Stewart hung up his kilt with his balls still tucked inside and Aztec Camera leader Roddy Frame is MIA, so it falls to Idlewild singer Roddy Woomble and guitarist Rod Jones to restore integrity to that most Scottish of names.

The Edinburgh five-piece is only 40 percent Rod -- drummer Colin Newton and recent additions Allan Stewart (guitar) and Gavin Fox (bass) fill out the group -- but national pride overflows from "Scottish Fiction," the last song on Idlewild's new The Remote Part. As the song's fuzz-guitar fuse burns, Edwin Morgan, Scotland's poet laureate, recites two stanzas he composed at Woomble's request and concludes, You will not shake us off above or below/Scottish friction, Scottish fiction. The band hangs Morgan's words on the song like St. Andrew's cross on a castle wall.

Woomble lives in London now, though. There's more to do there, he says.

Idlewild isn't a band defined by its contradictions -- it doesn't reinvent its sound with each record, and Woomble's apolitical lyrics send no mixed signals. But by phone from Scotland, where the group is recuperating from a jet-lagged minitour of Australia before embarking on its first string of American dates as a headliner, Woomble talks about the group in sometimes opposing terms. He dismisses, for instance, the perception of Idlewild as a group rooted in punk.

"I never thought we were a punk band," he says. "That word doesn't mean much. Punk and indie music always seemed honest and very real to us. We'd see bands in Edinburgh playing loudly, and it made sense. Essentially [at first] we wrote pop songs that were discordant, noisy. They were much simpler to begin with. I think they got more ambitious in their scale."

The Remote Part's songs actually aren't much more elaborate musically or stylistically than steely early singles like 1997's "Queen of the Troubled Teens." The band's lean attack remains, and Jones' playing is still a hard-hat-and-goggles affair. Even the band's obvious improvements -- Woomble's lyrics have gained confidence and insight without losing their admirable economy, and Dave Eringa's production is urgent but polished -- have less to do with ambition than with inevitable maturity.

What has changed in scale, though, is Idlewild's facility with the old-fashioned pop hook. The band's immediate grasp of melody, audible from its first singles, crystallizes on Remote. There's not a clunker among its eleven catchy songs, nothing that doesn't stand up to the repeat button. You could even call it pop. Woomble doesn't mind.

"To me, pop means something that's totally, undeniably tuneful," he says. "A lot of people try to shy away from being obviously tuneful, but it's underrated to write a catchy song."

Though 2001's sterling 100 Broken Windows brought plenty of glowing reviews and a slot in front of David Letterman's TV audience, Remote is even better. Woomble says it had to be.

"We approached this record differently," he says. "Broken Windows seemed to cement us. We wanted to establish completely this time that we don't want to be flavor of the month."

Remote sounds like a group that could dominate its fellows. It sounds like ... R.E.M.?

Even as it has flung a predictable barrage of superlatives at the group, the British music press has found an uncharacteristically American analog for Idlewild in Green-era R.E.M. But though The Remote Part shares with the Georgia group's major-label coming-out an emphasis on sawing, rhythmic guitar leads, and Woomble's baritone sometimes resembles Michael Stipe's foghorn vocals on early R.E.M., the album is less quirky and more muscular. When the tempos aren't outright jittery, Remote's songs alternate between the oceanic sweep of opener "You Held the World in Your Arms" (which recalls more recent R.E.M.) and the Mersey, Smiths-like lilt of "Live in a Hiding Place." That Woomble, a onetime drummer, performs no instrumental duties for Idlewild does more to put the band in the company of power-trio-plus-singer outfits R.E.M. and the Smiths than its music does.

In 2001, Idlewild worked with Smiths producer Stephen Street. It was more collision that collaboration, Woomble says.

"We recorded six songs in 2001 with Street," he explains. "They've all come out [in Europe] as b-sides. It wasn't electric. It wasn't a disaster, but it wasn't great. He wasn't really compatible with us."

Windows producer Eringa returned to finish the album, which was recorded and mixed in fits and starts over nine weeks.

"We always finish," Woomble says. "We're a band that tries to get everything we possibly can out of a song."

Still, the group avoids the second-guessing that comes from camping out in the studio day after day by limiting extraneous layering. Woomble, for instance, vetoed a banjo part Jones wanted to add to one song on Remote. "That song didn't need a banjo," the singer says, his accent coloring the word with a trace of exasperated disdain.

"None of us are classically taught musicians," Woomble continues. "Our background was, as long as you owned an instrument you were in. We're good in the context of what we are. Rod doesn't play solos, but he's a good guitar player at what he does. We're still kind of clueless as a band, but we know what we are. I'd have been skeptical if Rod had been able to play the trumpet and oboe and all that. I'd have walked away."

Singling out that lack of pretension is as close as Woomble comes to defining Idlewild's mission. "All the best bands start like that," he says.

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