The first 14 tracks on the Queers' recent 22-song retrospective are 1991 demos by this band, which has turned being New Hampshire's best Ramones imitators into a remarkably winning career. Though the sound quality is rough, the only thing that will surprise fans of the quartet's subsequent work is Joe Queer's occasional attempt at a hard-rock guitar solo. The Queers have always kept it simple and stupid, but these demos reveal that they started with all the chops necessary for blitzkrieg boppers like "I Hate Everything" and "Nobody Likes Me." (Melodically, the latter is directly descended from the Ramones' "Commando.") The subsequent tracks show the band's growing interest in melody and harmony, largely under the influence of the Beach Boys; the album includes two Brian Wilson songs, "Little Honda" and (as a hidden track) "God Only Knows." Mix "Rocket to Russia," "Pet Sounds" and some self-deprecating autobiography, and the result is such tuneful, rueful charmers as "Born to Do Dishes" and "I Can't Get Over You."
Although Idlewild's "Hope Is Important" opens and closes in storms of hardcore-punk fury, that's not the Scottish quartet's only mode. Assertive as most of these songs are, they're also melodic and angular in a new wavey way. The jumpy art-school manifesto of "Paint Nothing" suggests early Talking Heads in overdrive, while "When I Argue I See Shapes" and "Everyone Says You're So Fragile" alternately resemble Wire, R.E.M. and Fugazi.
Cogent songcraft is what distinguishes Idlewild from most rampaging American neo-hardcore bands. Despite guitarist Rod Jones' taste for noise, he's willing to switch to acoustic for songs like "I'm Happy to Be Here Tonight," one of several "Hope" tunes that shows no fear of vocal harmonies. In today's music market, there may not be many listeners for a third-generation punk band that can play both hard and sweet, but this album deserves to reach every one of them.
Both appearing Wednesday at the Garage with One Man Army.
* To hear a free Soundbite from the Queers, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8105. For a Sound Bite from Idlewild, press 8106. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)