Tag Archives: Idlewild

I Came in from the Mountain – Roddy Woomble

The extent to which Roddy Woomble’s voice has changed over the last 18 years is always pretty shocking to this casual Idlewild fan when I revisit the band’s early work. The sneering, American-accented vocals of Woomble’s youth are long gone. Eighteen years after the release of his band Idlewild’s debut, Captain, Woomble now has a voice of deep, rich mahogany. He has matured into a terrific singer, and a very fine songwriter, too.

I saw him play last night with Mel and her friend Louise at Kings Place (sic) in London for the first night of the Caledonian Chronicles season. 90 minutes in the company of his band and his solo-career songbook fully convinced me on both fronts. He did play a couple of Idlewild songs (one I knew – an excellent version of You Held the World in Your Arms that for me outdid the original – and one I didn’t know; Mel told me it was Quiet Crown, an old Idlewild tune, after I’d said to her that the band could have segued from that into American English), but he had little need to fall back on his band’s repertoire to keep the audience rapt. I couldn’t help but think, as I looked around, that probably a lot of the people there wouldn’t have known When I Argue I See Shapes anyway, as perversely enjoyable as it might have been to see Woomble in high-energy yelping mode in an austere concert hall.

He had a great band (featuring Sorren Maclean on guitar, Luciano Rossi on piano and Hannah Fisher on fiddle – all three sang harmony vocals), which helps, but quiet, sit-down shows in concert halls live or die on the strength of the material being played. No song demonstrates the quality of Woomble’s mature writing better than I Came In From the Mountain, from his first (now deleted, he revealed last night) solo album, My Secret is My Silence.

It’s built on the simplest chords (I, IV, vi, V) that are shuffled around in progressions that every songwriter has used at least a few times, and the verse melody is fragmentary, a few syllables at a time, as if the thoughts that the singer is searching for aren’t quite coming together. On first listen, by the end of the first verse, you could be forgiven for thinking this isn’t much of a song, however nice the line “because we affect each other endlessly” may be.

It’s the chorus where it comes together. It’s a simple tune, though with more movement and a wider range than the verse melody, harmonised on the second and third repeats by Kate Rusby, sometime labelmate on Pure Records. Their voices sound great together. This is the intriguing space that Woomble the solo artist inhabits. Headlining the opening night of a folk festival called Caledonian Chronicles, sitting on stage with a fiddle player, accompanied on record by uilleann pipes, duetting with Britfolk royalty, but nonetheless thinking, writing and arranging his songs like a rock/pop songwriter. Comparisons of Idlewild to R.E.M. were overstated back in 2002 when The Remote Part came out, I think. Nevertheless, there is no songwriter whose phrasing of a melody (and way of matching lyric and tune in surprising ways, so that the line contains unexpected caesuras and enjambements) more frequently reminds me of Michael Stipe.

He ruefully acknowledged once or twice yesterday that his solo career isn’t setting the world alight. Perhaps it’s because you can’t fit him neatly into either the folk box or the indie box anymore. But it’s a shame that he can’t quite fill a 500-seat hall as a solo act, as at this point it’d surprise me if Idlewild are making more vital music than he is on his own.

Roddy500-3
A man of the mountains – Roddy Woomble

My recent EP, Little Differences. Available to stream or download

Slain by Elf – Urusei Yatsura

I guess you could say that in the late nineties, with releases by Urusei Yatsura, Idlewild, the Delgados, Mogwai and Snow Patrol, US-influenced lo-fi Scottish indie was definitely a ‘thing’. But what kind of thing was it?

For Idlewild, the Delgados and Snow Patrol, it was the kind of thing one does in one’s teens or early twenties before discovering R.E.M. or Brian Wilson or (in the case of Snow Patrol) Lou Barlow, turning down the distortion, hiring orchestras and getting a little more expansive, a little more ‘mature’ and aiming to create big ‘A’ art. For Mogwai, it was a largely instrumental thing, a Slint kind of thing, and that was more or less how it stayed.

In the case of Urusei Yatsura, it was a Pavement kind of thing. Slightly more aggressive and slightly less shambling than Pavement, but just as bratty and smart-alec. I hadn’t heard Pavement when I first heard Slain by Elf (on, I guess, either early XFM or the Evening Session), so its resemblance to the work of Stephen Malkmus and his cheery band of underachievers didn’t scream at me like it would have done to more worldly (or older) listeners. I liked the brattiness, the rough edges, how they seemingly couldn’t be bothered to write a proper chorus and simply settled for sneering the title phrase several times. It seemed cool.

It seemed, and maybe this was what I liked most about it, like something I could do: get a band together, a few simple chord progresssions, some squonky guitar noise (I never could play fast but had a decent sideline in squonk, as befitted any teenage fan of Jonny Greenwood in 1998) and some surreal lyrics – a Peel session and indie cultdom were surely there for the taking! (It didn’t happen, obviously. I set noise-pop aspirations aside, went to university with an acoustic guitar and fingerpicked my way through my twenties.)

Urusei Yatsura disbanded after Everybody Loves Urusei Yatsura in 2000 and so they didn’t move into folk music, orchestral chamber pop or the sort of rock that seems designed to soundtrack big moments on unimaginative TV shows, like their peers did. There is little information about the band online. Google ‘Slain by Elf’ and you get a link to the song on YouTube, a couple of pages of links to lyrics websites, some links to dodgy MP3 websites, then an awful lot of Tolkien fanfic. When three members of the band regrouped as Projekt A-ko in 2007, they hadn’t changed a great deal. In line with fashion, the guitars were a little cleaner (but not by that much), but otherwise all was pretty much as it had been ten years previously. Which suggests that a love of lo-fi, Pavement-esque indie ran more deeply in them than it might have seemed to more cynical observers in the late nineties, who could have been forgiven for suspecting mere bandwagon-jumping.

On a slow morning in June, 15 years after it came out, Slain by Elf seems refreshing bracing and unpretentious. A product of modest ambitions, sure, but one that hit the mark squarely.

Image

Everybody loved Urusei Yatsura