Is Idlewild really the next Radiohead? Is that good news or bad? Has the ancient and honorable history of British rock really come to this? First there were the Beatles and the Stones and then the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath, followed by the decadence of David Bowie and the pomp of Queen, which was overthrown by the Sex Pistols and the "political" punk of the Clash. The '80s had the Smiths (the art school crowd's answer to the Sex Pistols) and the Psychedelic Furs ("Pretty in Pink"), just like the '90s had Blur and Oasis. There was also Nick Drake, the tender young '70s London suicide who was radically rediscovered in the '90s by all the supersensitive singer-songwriter types who evolved the burgeoning genres of "slowcore" and "sadcore"; in the ultrahip decade that was the '90s, it was probably inevitable that one of Nick Drake's most haunting songs would wind up as background music in a Volkswagen commercial. There were also the Spice Girls, Insh'allah. So what does it mean to be the next Radiohead? On OK Computer, the last Brit Rock Album That Mattered, Radiohead took raw alienation to chart-topping heights; they created a world of smart, brooding characters who wandered through digitized soundscapes that served as the perfect backdrop for sweeping guitar hooks and Thom Yorke's unearthly falsetto. Radiohead sounded like a really sad, well-read version of Queen—which is a pretty high compliment. Since then, there has been no shortage of British bands that sound exactly like Radiohead; as a result, a Top 40 record by a British band has become as rare as the fabled British unicorn. Five years after OK Computer was released, Radiohead is now the band that killed British rock.
But the record companies refuse to give up. At the CMJ Music Marathon in New York this past weekend, the Next Radiohead was widely assumed to be Scotland's Idlewild, the earliest-breaking and still the best of Capitol/EMI's army of young, energetic Radiohead clones, which also includes the Vines and Doves. (Radiohead is on Capitol, too.)
No more perfect setting for a coronation could be imagined. "The CMJ," as every music geek knows, is the weekendlong festival put on every fall in Manhattan by the College Music Journal (which is like Billboard magazine for rock bands on independent labels)—a gathering of aspiring Robert Christgau types, the petty dictators of college radio-station playlists, and other mostly pathetic, youthful, lonely types, who all are eager to be cool and make friends, and who really dig new bands, the kind you might not hear on commercial radio. Everyone hangs out for the weekend, listening to eight or 10 bands in a row every night and—if they are lucky—getting corrupted by the publicists who are constantly moving through a haze of cigarette smoke and chattering on their cell phones. After the CMJ is over, everyone goes home and decides what records will get played on college radio for the rest of the year.
If Idlewild makes it this year at the CMJ, they might in fact turn out to be the next Radiohead. Their last American release, 100 Broken Windows (their new album will be coming out in America this winter), was a critical success that earned the band frequent in-print comparisons with Radiohead but didn't sell any records. The Idlewild concept is similarly intricate to Radiohead's and equally sensible—marry themes of alienation and clever one-liners but set them to a more energetic mainstream style that blends some unfortunate anthemic tendencies (think U2) with familiar, well-studied riffs from the most widely imitated "alternative" bands of the '80s: the Smiths, the Psychedelic Furs, REM, and the Pixies.
What makes the band stand out is their attention to craft. These guys are smart, and they're quite precise in what they do. Where Idlewild is particularly strong is at constructing dynamics within their songs: setting up opposing forces within the music (soft/abrasive; fast/slow) and then resolving them in some cool-sounding way that's replete with fresh meaning and that might stand out—but not too much—on American radio. The typical dynamics of an Idlewild song are helpfully diagrammed on "Idea Track," on which a fruity, Save-the-Rainforest chorus of female voices crashes into a sudden fit of punk screaming—a contradiction that then somehow resolves into a majestic, crushed purple-velvet guitar riff that might do Oasis proud.
Idlewild's musical references to American indie rock bands of the '80s are not hard to get. The problem is that there are so many of them, and they follow one after another, so that it gets hard to keep track of the band from song to song. "There's a Seventeen contest in my home/ There's a Seventeen contest in my own home," sings the Idlewild front man, Roddy Woomble. The song, "Little Discourage" sounds exactly likeearly-mid period REM. The music is derivative; on the other hand, the fact that Idlewild is really, really good at writing derivative music is a virtue, not a crime. (Radiohead's first hit single, "Creep"—which starts off the '90s disc of Capitol's great new box set of Capitol tracks from the '40s through the '90s—sounds like a straight-up parody of Nirvana.) Idlewild's "I Don't Have the Map" is definitely one of the best Smiths rip-offs ever—with the odd but heartfelt imprecation "Don't buy local lamplight" leading into a wave of Pixies-ish guitars, which then resolves into a believably angry and alienated chorus of "You can't cope without the contact." The band's two-guitar attack is perfectly poised in the commercial but still heavy-sounding area that the Pixies opened up in 1987.
Intellectual seriousness may not be a virtue of rock music—but it is definitely a virtue in Brit rock. On "These Wooden Ideas," the band breaks new ground by writing a plausible rock song about what it feels like to be in an emotionally blocked relationship with a girlfriend who is reading too much Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said. "It's the better way to feel/ When you're not real/ You're postmodern," Woomble sings, before the sotto voce response: "It's not that one-dimensional/ It's not the only thought." The contradiction between these two sentiments is resolved into the very academic-sounding but still somehow melodic final judgment: "This wooden idea is a method of repetition."
The biggest problem with the band in its smart mode is summed up in their almost-hit-single of two years ago, "Rosability," a song with great musical dynamics that somehow resolves itself into an annoyingly arty call and response: "Gertrude Stein said that's enough/ I know that that's not enough," which leads back into a What's-the-Frequency-Kenneth chorus of "There is no Rosability." It's a good song—but is it worth the annoyance? Is it funny? Can you dance to it? Along the way, Roddy Woomble gets off another note-perfect Replacements-era Paul Westerberg imitation, pitching his delivery of the word "dissatisfied" to recall Westerberg's husky-voiced "unsatisfied" of 15 years earlier. Moments like this make sense to Brit rock bands because they live in a very small, insular country where they can enjoy talking to other well-educated, middle-class kids like themselves who study hard and have gained admission to good, state-funded public universities. You can feel the thought beneath the music. Study hard. Write well. Show that you've read the required material. What is said to work in the rest of British life should work in rock music, too.
Except that it doesn't. Standing up in front of 5,000 music geeks at the CMJ mega-showcase and hoping to be crowned the Next Radiohead, Idlewild sounded like a bunch of recent university graduates at a job interview—which they were, of course. They hit every note. Among members of the audience, the head nodding was real but not ecstatic; Coldplay they are not. On the other hand, it makes me happier to think of the members of Idlewild as important British rock stars than as guys in black sweatshirts who drive moving vans through the wintry streets of Glasgow—which is how bands end up when they don't earn out their advances. The ongoing effort to break the next Radiohead two, three, or four years too late is not a cynical record-company ploy—it's just dumb. The records that "matter" in the comfy, insular backwater of English rock don't matter in America because they are trivial, derivative, decorous, scholarly productions that happen when a once-great tradition has run out of gas. Maybe 100 Broken Windows is actually a brilliant concept album by a bunch of smart, bummed out guys who are just sick and tired of trying to be the next Radiohead. If not, let's just all sit back and relax and let the great old oceanliner of Brit Rock just drift out to sea, in the style of one of those loony old Victorian cartoons that Terry Gilliam used to draw in his Monty Python days. Perhaps what Brit rock could use now is a sense of humor: Predictable, derivative, by-the-numbers alienation seems like a really, really tough way to go.