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In a rock scene filled with Minnesota nice guys, a little arrogance can go a long way--and the Idle Hands have more than just a little. During a recent show at the 400 Bar, frontman Ciaran Daly lets his tambourine go slack against his jeans, counts out "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6," in a low, Bono whisper, and turns his attention to the crowd. Tossing his curly brown moptop, he brays, "Why are you so boring?/Why are you so dull?" Behind him, the rest of the Idle Hands look just as self-assured, digging in with their guitars and staring down at the audience as if to shrug and say, Well, it's a valid question.
But here's a valid question for the band: Why does Daly caw at his audience in a voice that's straight out of Quadrophenia? Over beers at the Uptown bar, lead guitarist Matt Westby recalls being puzzled by the same thing before he joined the Hands. "When I first saw them," he remembers, "I thought, 'If [Daly] would just stop singing with that stupid English accent, we'd have something here.'"
Daly reminds you of that girl in college who comes back from a semester abroad not only cockney, but throwing in slang like "slag off" and "bird." Remember how you felt about that girl? I do. I knew I should be disgusted, but I ended up strangely charmed. I mean, I figured there's nothing wrong with making a bold stylistic choice if the alternative is sounding like you're from St. Cloud.
Turns out, Daly sort of has an excuse for singing the way he does. Pale and skinny, with fine Julian Lennon-like features, he grew up in Ireland and England before coming to Minneapolis as a teenager. But Daly doesn't speak with an Irish accent, and the decision to gild his vowels in the style of his favorite brand-name British rock legends--namely, Jagger and Bowie--seems like a conscious one. "I remember being shocked," Daly laughs, "when someone pointed out that Green Day sang in an English accent. I was like, 'Really? I thought that was just how punk guys sing!'"
Daly wears his influences so proudly that when I tell him I heard Liam Gallagher was his hero, rhythm guitarist Michael Lopez teases, "Yeah, I heard that, too." But Lopez and the rest of the band are just as steeped in classic-rock influences. On the band's self-released debut, Dig?, Daly is the principal songwriter, coming up with basic guitar outlines that the rest of the band paint by number, borrowing from the Stones or sometimes T. Rex. The EP kicks off with "Dissipated," a four-minute anthem that marries a glam whomp of a drumbeat to baa baa baa hosannas. The title track swaggers in on a dirty Keith Richards riff before Daly barks "Can you dig it now?" over and over again on top of a bouncy keyboard melody. "Sorry Now," a break-up song that Daly wrote for his previous band, Twitch, has kept only a hint of the plaintive twang heard in its previous incarnation--it's been retro-fitted with a more muscular Britpop structure. Live, the band imbues these songs with an impolite energy you wouldn't expect from local boys with such high cheekbones.
Yes, the Idle Hands demonstrate a sophisticated taste for only the coolest rock influences, but are these guys just singing about being cool and liking cool things? Daly insists that despite their hipster style, they have bigger issues to ponder. "Hey, all the guys in this band have been through some shit," he says. According to Daly, "Dissipated" was inspired by a time in his life when he was homeless, donating plasma on the West Bank. In the song, there are lines about a drunk dying in Tompkins Square Park, and a guy named Bobo who gets his foot cut off by a passing train. Bleak stuff, but watching Daly bathe his lyrics in that strident tenor of his, you get the sense that all he gleaned from the experience was the virtue of good bedhead. Maybe that's not a bad thing: A more sentimental vocal treatment might have lent a silly romanticism to Bobo's lifestyle.
Still, Daly is probably at his best when he's joking around. On a couple of tracks, he derides the chain restaurant/shopping mall lifestyle he has forsaken in lieu of living in Uptown and fronting a band. One highlight is the boogie-woogie call to arms "Manifesto": Here, Daly addresses what he calls the "beauty hangover" of the current rock scene, inviting the "trust-fund babies" in the Strokes and the Dandy Warhols to "smoke my pole" while reminding them "you can buy PR, but you can't buy soul." Admittedly, such lessons are hard to take from a guy who dropped out of Breck prep and graduated from high school in Edina. But as Daly says, the lyrics are less a warning about diving into the shallow end of rock's pool and more of a punchline for a three-minute laugh. "Beauty hangover was just a couple of words that sounded cool together," Daly says. "Half of a good lyric is saying something smart-ass and funny and cool, and the other half of it should be something dopey that sounds good over a rock song. It's not that fucking literary. All these people that want to be fucking poets. Well, poetry makes really shitty lyrics." With or without an English accent.