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American Idle 

Scottish poet-punks Idlewild (re)conquer the States

The power of the American music press can be an awesome thing. Consider the case of Scottish band Idlewild, which has enjoyed a respectable reputation in its homeland on the strength of some early singles and two strong albums, 1999's Hope Is Important and 2000's angular 100 Broken Windows. But the band didn't truly reach Spice Girls-level fame overseas until SPIN magazine declared Broken Windows the "No. 1 Record You Didn't Hear" in a year-end wrap-up. Largely on the strength of that endorsement, Capitol Records released Windows stateside, and the band earned a coveted appearance on "Late Night With David Letterman." Then the British press took notice.

"The British music press -- and Britain in general -- is very sensationalized when it comes to music," muses soft-spoken singer Roddy Woomble. "It has to be a big story or no story at all. The American music press and music fans took [the album] more seriously than the British press did. And as a result of that, the British press suddenly took us more seriously."

The irony, of course, is that for all the good its American reception did for the band back home, here in the states Idlewild is still a largely unproven commodity. But if overseas reception of the band's accessible new The Remote Part is any indication, that could change when it hits these shores March 25. By turns sweepingly poetic and unrelenting in its hard-charging melodicism, the record solidifies the band's most obvious musical touchstones -- U2, the Smiths, the Waterboys, early Replacements and R.E.M. -- into a mature sound all its own. The album debuted at No. 3 on U.K. album charts and has spawned four successful singles to date.

All this despite a doggedly literary bent. Woomble, who proved his rock-crit cred on 100 Broken Windows by giving props to Gertrude Stein in the incessantly catchy "Roseability," lets his scholarly flag fly proudly on Remote Part. Loquacious in a way not seen since Morrissey's heyday, he manages to imbue such potentially clunky lines as, "Maybe you're young without youth/Or maybe you're old without knowing anything's true/I think you're young without youth," with a steely wisdom. On the closing "In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction," Scottish poet laureate Edwin Morgan contributes a stout, defiant ode to Scottish identity while the band steadily builds a surging wall of guitar, piano and drums. Even the hard-charging rock numbers sport titles such as "A Modern Way of Letting Go" and come stuffed with more verbiage than a college textbook. And the CD booklet exhorts listeners to "Support Your Local Poet."

Hardly the stuff hit albums are usually made of. But while such touches carry a real danger of prog-rock pretension, Idlewild avoids such pratfalls, thanks mainly to a remarkably polished melodic and musical sensibility. That's due in part, Woomble says, to rock legend and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, who briefly hung out with the band during its last U.S. tour, offering advice that helped shape the more expansive direction Remote Part would eventually take.

"Lenny showed us that a song doesn't necessarily have to be approached in just one certain way," Woomble says of Kaye's input on the stirring "American English." "Which is funny, because it's a song about songwriting, and how songs mean different things to different people. Through that song, we learned how to write songs differently."

It shows: In its lush instrumentation and harsh truths -- "The good songs weren't written for you," Woomble upbraids naive listeners, "and they'll never be about you" -- it's the most layered and verbose arena-rock ballad since U2's "One."

Still, for all Idlewild's critical praise and hit singles abroad, Woomble -- who spent part of his formative years in nearby Greenville, S.C., and professes a fondness for Atlanta -- has no preconceived notions as to how his band's new album will fare in the U.S.

"I'm under no illusions that we'll be challenging Britney or whoever for the top spot," he says. "We're still very much just a cult indie-college band, and that's a good place to be in. And I think we're at a good point to maybe take it somewhere different."

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