Saturday, June 6, 2009
X - X - "Los Angeles"
Whew! LA punk, fresh & kicky!
X was at the forefront of the late 70’s punk explosion out of Los Angeles, and for good reason. For one, they differentiated themselves by being a genuinely gifted band: hell, most of the bands from the scene were visceral hardcore excitement, but that was about it – one or two classic albums (or even singles) of great bile, but then implosion. X boasted a dynamic versatile drummer in DJ Bonebrake and rockabilly throwback guitar wizard Billy Zoom. John Doe wasn’t a slouch on bass either. They also had big aspirations: X seemed somewhat aloof from the hardcore scene, obviously looking beyond the LA gutters toward mainstream success. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, since a “scene” by definition is a limited defined area. They wanted to, and could, play their way out.
Another defining factor was their lyrics. Sure, the good ol’ punk motifs were there (desperation, kinky sex, mental, physical, & chemical abuse), but lyricists John Doe & Exene Cervenka approached the topics from a far more literary point of view – more so than anyone in LA except Darby Crash of the Germs. Though, as a melody over lyric kind of guy, this would normally be a negative in my book, they were decent enough lyric writers to avoid the pretensions of “poetry” yet still present a deeper more evocative view of a crumbling SoCal culture. Definitely more Bukowski than Dylan.
And then there’s Exene’s vocals. It’s clear at this early point in their career, Exene’s vocals, and I’m being very generous here, suck. A cross between a bleat, blurt, whine, screech, yowl. Luckily, vocals are shared between Exene and John. John’s vocals are stronger but might be fairly generic on their own. But together….they’re very interesting. Exene’s off-key screeching with John’s Presley-isms combined in minor-key harmonies SHOULD be annoying, but they’re at worst unique, and at best highly listenable.
Lastly, they had a great LOOK. Apart from DJ’s everypunk appearance, the rest of the band looked freakin’ COOL. I used to think that Exene was a white trash Siouxie Sioux, which was admittedly an uncool mean thought (and I must not think bad thoughts). Exene had less of a fashion model appearance and more of an organic goth look: far more real life than magazine glossy (that said, Siouxie was and is still hotter than hell). John was like a punky modern James Dean, and Billy, with his so-blond-its-white hair, sparkly guitar, and 12 year old appearance (even though he had to have been pushing 30), was a smiling angelic presence in the LA hellhole.
All of their attributes are in place on their debut, “Los Angeles”. The only drawback is that the songs aren’t quite there yet. Everything on the album is good (save their just okay version of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen”) but only about half is great. But when it’s great, it’s AWESOME (“Johnny Hit & Run Pauline”, “Los Angeles”, “Nausea”, “The Phone’s Off the Hook (but You’re Not)”). The biggest gripe I have with the record is the presence of Ray Manzarek, keyboard player from the Doors. He sensed a lineage between X and his old band, and became their patron & producer. The actual production isn’t bad, but the keyboards he throws in seem more an opportunity to show how hip he is rather than to enhance the music. X was, and continues to be, way better than the overblown buffoonish Doors, yet were marketed as their second coming by fawning critics. Too bad. The other negative in hindsight is that, since they were fully operating with their vision intact on their debut, there wasn’t much room for them to grow – so little that by their 4th record they were already sounding tired & routine.
But we’ll worry about that one later. For now, enjoy this fantastic record.
VERDICT: great look, great sound, great sound – I think these kids have a future!
VIDEO: from the classic “Decline of Western Civilization” film – MANDATORY viewing for anyone interested in punk, rock, or life.