Jolly Rotten Sneers

Aggro, aggro, aggro. There — we said it.

There was a time, in punk-rock's formative era, when pissed-off kids all

over America could be found stomping around in combat boots and army

jackets, with hair that suggested the handiwork of some military barber

who had been laid off for drunkenness, and, most importantly, a particular

kind of sneer on their faces. It was an imported sneer. Its inventor, or

at least popularizer, was Johnny Rotten.

I remember my first sighting of such types, briskly making their way in dual

formation down Brooklyn Heights' Henry Street. I stopped to look, impressed.

There were a couple of records under the arm of one of them; I made out the

Clash's Give Them Enough Rope. These two guys, while sitting in class

at school, would probably talk just like they did before they ever heard

"White Riot," but in the privacy of their own bedrooms they probably tried out

something resembling an English accent.

Listening to Idlewild's Hope Is Important reminds me of those guys and

girls (with their dyed red hair cut short, combat boots with knee-high black

socks, hanging around smoking cigarettes at lunch and talking about Tier 3 or

the Pyramid Club or the Peppermint Lounge or Danceteria), because there is a

similar kind of cultural import/ export deal taking place with this band

— except, in a peculiar but satisfying twist, the goods are being shipped

in the opposite direction.

Hope Is Important starts out with a furious blast of punk energy

— you can practically hear the singer's head banging against the ceiling

as he jumps up and down, going crazy. This being a British band, I expected to

hear that particular brand of class-antagonized punk rocket fuel that

blew the lid off everything back in the day (not that I was so in on it,

having been more of the Zeppelin-Stones-Beatles-Who persuasion at the time).

Idlewild are certainly an explosive cathartic band when they let it rip,

but as the record progresses a peculiar sound emerges from the sound of

guitar-driven thrash: an American accent. It's always interesting to see

which bits of American culture pop up out of context. These are certainly

some earnest and catchy power-punk songs that Bob Mould would be proud

of. The Husker Du reference is specific; thank God they didn't swerve a

tiny coordinate over in the pop-geographical time machine and land on the

Replacements. The Senseless Things, the last English band to take the

Replacements as a main source of inspiration, produced an enjoyable bit

of power-pop kitsch that came and went in a flash.

The Senseless Things, by the way, were the opening act on Blur's first U.S.

tour. They sought inspiration in the great American expanse at a time when

"Creep" was Radiohead's one-hit wonder, Blur were pushing their dance-pop

single "There's No Other Way," and Oasis were a band called Rain that

featured only one Gallagher (the one who doesn't write songs). It seems

interesting that at a time when the huge surge of energy that came out of

England (largely in the form of the above-mentioned bands) is dissipating, a

band looking back to mid-'80s American punk should appear, book-ending

The Senseless Things' presence at the start of all that. A glance at

current UK music magazines is a surreal experience these days; they are

touting Gay Dad — the '90s Sigue Sigue Sputnik — and other

horrible crap. And here is this burst of strangely attitudeless, almost

morose (in that introspective, anti-fashion, rage-accumulating way) yet

also cheerful trio who, in case you missed the point listening to the

music, wear big smiles on their press pictures and sweatshirts with the

letters "USA" emblazoned on them.

Some of these songs are driving rants, but the best are actually pretty staid,

reflective and tuneful. The standout tracks are "4 People Do Good" (RealAudio excerpt), "I'm So

Happy to Be Here Tonight" (RealAudio excerpt) and "I'm a Message" (RealAudio excerpt), and all feature singer Roddy

Woomble (what a name!) singing rather tunefully and wistfully, with echoes of

the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano and Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. The band

gets major points for its name, which was what Kennedy Airport used to be

called in a bygone era (it's also the name of a novel by the influential

English cultural critic Mark Lawson, though somehow I don't think this came

into play when they picked it). Hope Is Important is a great, catchy,

pissed-off, hard-charging record that reminds me of when thrashing guitar

chords and impassioned power-pop really made one want to jump up and down

in one's room and then defiantly stomp down the street, waiting and wanting

for something to rage against, something against which you could be defined.

Thomas Beller is the author of "Seduction Theory," a collection of

stories, and a founding editor of the literary magazine Open City.

His novel, "The Sleep-Over Artist," is out in the summer of 2000.