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The Haul: Skunk's Last American Virgin and Idlewild's The Remote Part

Like Mystery Train, I hadn’t been up to Record Exchange since last fall, and yet unlike Mystery Train, it didn’t feel like their stock had changed since then. I recall seeing these two LPs in past visits and made similar re-encounters to other old friends that hadn’t moved in the last six months and aren’t likely to move anytime soon. (Hello again, vinyl pressings of Matthew Sweet’s first two forgettable LPs!) Part of the reason why I picked up these two records was because I didn’t know when (or if) I’ll return to Record Exchange. It’s roughly on the way back from Gloucester, but my trips to Mystery Train or RRRecords in Lowell always seem so much more fruitful. Nothing against the proprietors of Record Exchange, since they’ve been nothing but helpful whenever I’ve stopped in, but the residents of Salem need to trade in some classic vinyl pronto to help change the stock.

72. Skunk– Last American Virgin – Twin/Tone, 1989 – $5

Skunk's Last American Virgin

Morbid curiosity finally got the better of me with Skunk’s Last American Virgin, which features future Chavez singer/guitarist Matt Sweeney. Thanks to my 1994-1996 fandom of the Smashing Pumpkins, I knew of Skunk before I’d heard Chavez, since Billy Corgan regularly name-dropped the band as one of his all-time favorites (and later recruited Sweeney for the ill-fated Zwan). Unfortunately for Skunk, the twelve years since the fall-out of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness have involved a gradual acceptance that Billy Corgan has terrible taste in music, putting quite the damper on this record.

So is Last American Virgin the lost Chavez album we’ve all hoped would surface? Is it worth spending $15 on a custom-burned CD-R from Twin/Tone to get this out-of-print album? No and no. Skunk sounds like an amped-up cousin to groups like the Replacements, early Soul Asylum, late Hüsker Dü, i.e. very Minneapolis, very late 1980s. Much like Clay Tarver’s past in Bullet Lavolta, Skunk doesn’t hold up to modern ears, since there’s too much vaguely hair metal shredding filtering into the abrasive side of 1980s college rock. The big, complex riffs of Chavez threaten to surface from time to time, but they’re usually submarined by another string of hot licks. Only “Hots on 4 Suzy” and the Meat Puppets-esque first half of “Rosie” come recommended. The rest sounds exactly like what you’d expect (dread) to hear with such an artifact. If you come across Last American Virgin in a dollar bin, it might be worth the lark for a Chavez fan, but otherwise, laugh at the big hair in the back cover photo and move on.

73. Idlewild – The Remote Part LP – Capitol, 2003 – $7

Idlewild's The Remote Part

Idlewild is my go-to example for the arc of maturity for loose, energetic groups. Starting off with the scraggly noise pop of Captain, incorporating more distinct pop hooks amid the shrieking bursts of youth on Hope Is Important, toning down the violence without losing the energy on 100 Broken Windows, achieving a comfort level but still forcing some of the old charge on The Remote Part, losing an original member and debating whether or not to break up, calming down completely on Warnings/Promises, slight pause for a solo record by singer Roddy Woomble, trying to re-energize themselves on Make Another World, putting out a best-of compilation, debating whether or not to break up. (I wish I had a supporting graph.) The Narrator essentially mirrored this arc up until their 100 Broken Windows, 2007’s excellent All This to the Wall, but they opted to split up instead of becoming the new R.E.M.; part of me wishes that Idlewild had followed suit.

I saw Idlewild on their American tour for The Remote Part, which took an extra year to come out stateside. It was right before I graduated from college and I didn’t know what I was going to do next. Idlewild, however, did know what they were doing next—becoming professional artists.There was no scramble to the performance, even when they hit the distortion pedal or revived some of the older material. As Woomble dedicated an album to a search for identity and came up with Scotland’s Answer to R.E.M., he lost most of the group’s original personality.

Yet it didn’t surprise me that “American English” and The Remote Part broke through to a number of my non-elitist friends and garnered the group an opening spot for Pearl Jam; it’s an album geared toward mass appeal, trading the occasionally opaque lyrical approach of 100 Broken Windows for a broader, inspirational stroke. The “Support your local poet” campaign that accompanied the album furthered this take on the newly mature Idlewild; the idea of supporting an artist, especially a poet, purely based on locality doesn’t sit well with me. It’s one thing when your local poet is Scottish poet laureate Edwin Morgan, whose guest appearance miraculously avoids being cringe-worthy, but on a broad scale, it trades greatness for accessibility. Those two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, but in terms of my preferences for Idlewild, there’s a point on that imaginary graph where my interest drops off completely. It’s when Idlewild knows the answers to the questions they’re asking.

So why did I re-buy an album that marked the end of my fondness for a group? Here’s a remarkably specific answer: my sister-in-law lost her copy of the CD and I was willing to trade up to the vinyl, which I knew was sitting in Salem. I could’ve just mailed her my copy of the CD, which I haven’t played in years, but I felt like I should hold onto The Remote Part, specifically its closing track, the poet-equipped “In Remote Part / Scottish Fiction.” Some of the arena-friendly rockers, like “You Held the World in Your Arms” (a more arena-friendly title could not be found), hold up alright, but it’s that closing track that manages to maintain the group’s dwindling personality, thanks to Morgan’s recitation of his “Scottish Fiction” poem and the acoustic/electric divide. It feels more inspired than inspiring.

While the overwhelmingly bland Warnings/Promises officially killed my future interest in the group, it did not kill my fondness for 100 Broken Windows, which sits precariously between youthful energy and musical maturity and is all the better for it. Idlewild just released another album, Post Electric Blues, and I’ll probably download it to see if they’ve somehow regained their youth and my interest, just like I’ve downloaded all of those other post-Remote Part albums. But I anticipate this album suffering the same fate as its recent predecessors in my recycle bin.