Graeme Thomson

Why I was wrong to think Idles obvious and depressing

Plus: smart arrangements and solid songwriting from Katherine Priddy

I never had Idles down as a great Bristol band, I confess. In fact, I never had them down as very much of anything at all. Through occasional and accidental contact, I associated the quintet with a cadre of unlovely groups – Sleaford Mods, Shame, Soft Play (formerly Slaves), Viagra Boys – that emerged in the 2010s and made shouty, angry music which wanted to Say Something Important about our times, most of it pretty obvious and deeply depressing. Idles had a song called ‘I’m Scum’. It was a hard pass from me – more or less sight unseen.

Turns out I got it wrong; or perhaps Idles got it wrong. In any case, we’ve both changed our tune. Their last album, Crawler, turned the tables on that splenetic politico-punk in favour of something considerably more personal, poetic and musically eclectic. If there was a flaw, it was that Crawler felt overly long and scattershot, too wilfully trying to upend audience expectations.

On their fifth album, that disruptive tendency has settled into lean, focused confidence. Deploying the gut-punch sonics of hip-hop and its sparse immediacy as a guiding principle, Idles now sound like a great Bristol band, deserving of mention in a lineage which includes the Pop Group, Rip Pig + Panic, Portishead, Massive Attack, Flying Saucer Attack, Head, the Blue Aeroplanes and, scrumping with menaces just outside the city limits, the Wurzels.

‘I don’t answer to dog whistles, bigot!’

What is the criteria for entry into the West Country Hall of Fame? Hard to define, exactly, but it requires a promiscuous musical ear, usually encompassing early punk and post-punk, soul, hip-hop, reggae, dub and jazz, with a flavouring of orchestral elegance. Also desirable is the ability to hold two apparently contradictory views at once: to balance an open mind with intractable obstinacy and blunt nihilism with a utopian sense of what might be possible. Also, importantly, a willingness to kill each previous incarnation of your band in order to build a new version.

Idles display many of these traits on Tangk, which is rhythmically daring, woozily atmospheric and sometimes quite wonderful. Singer Joe Talbot possesses a scrappy soulfulness which finds expression in a range of voices – understated and tender on opening mood-piece ‘Ideas 01’, and high and pleading on ‘Roy’, which perfects the kind of warped lounge music the Arctic Monkeys have been tilting at, rather self-consciously, over the past years.

At other times Idles seem obviously in thrall to Young Fathers, as any artist these days with good sense would be. ‘Gift Horse’ and ‘Pop Pop Pop’ possess a similar hosepipe-spraying, wildcat energy, Talbot spitting words over hard beats. Yet it’s the restraint – another Bristol Sound hallmark – which makes Tangk so arresting. ‘Monolith’ is epic in an underpowered, assured way. The expectation is for it to build and build towards an anthemic peak. Instead it holds its course with steady poise, signing off with a lonely little flare of solo saxophone.

Where there is a little of the old shouty stuff, it acts as a palette cleanser rather than the main course. The amusingly titled ‘Hall & Oates’ takes the riff to the Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ and applies a blowtorch: for those seeking their punk fix, here it is. ‘Dancer’ – which features LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and Nancy Whang – has a simple, throbbing urgency. ‘Grace’ skitters along to ghostly motorik rhythm. ‘No God, no king, I said love is the thing,’ croons Talbot, which might serve as the theme for the excellent record. It beats ‘I’m Scum’.

In The Eternal Rocks Beneath, released in 2021, Birmingham native Katherine Priddy crafted one of the great contemporary folk debuts of this century. Her second album, The Pendulum Swing, proves the achievement was no fluke, even if – perhaps inevitably – it cannot replicate the startling urgency of her first.

The songs lack some of the mythic symbolism of that record, as well as its rites-of-passage emotional turbulence. Instead, ancient themes of home, displacement and thwarted love are laid out carefully for re-examination. That they resonate anew is thanks to a series of smart arrangements – rich without being fussy, guitars vying with chamber strings – and the solid strength of the songwriting. Mostly, though, it’s a testament to Priddy’s remarkable voice, which is never less than coolly compelling, whether honouring family on ‘Father of Two’ or essaying heartbreak on ‘Does She Hold You Like I Did?’.