X – See How We Are

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 4)

I feel bad that X never made it big; for a band that pretty quickly dropped its more obvious punk elements and embraced a rootsy sound that others like Tom Petty were able to leverage into stardom, it’s a bit confusing and frustrating that they faltered so badly, and it seems pretty clear that after this album – somewhat lackluster in comparison to their earlier work – the band just gave up. They enjoy status as elder statespeople of punk (they opened for Pearl Jam) but their career could have gone so much better if more people had just given them a chance. John Doe, by the way, has done quite a bit of acting in movies and television.

What I Think of This Album

I can’t honestly say this is an essential X release, but it is very good. The songwriting is slightly below par and the band definitely misses the departed Billy Zoom. And whether it’s the absence of Zoom, the resulting revolving door that saw two replacement guitarists, the dissolution of the Exene Cervenka-John Doe marriage (and thus the lack of fodder for songs), the disappointment surrounding prior release Ain’t Love Grand, or just the fact that the band was now on its sixth album, the material is more straightforward and subdued. In fact, it was the last studio album until 1993 (when they released the even more underwhelming Hey Zeus!).

The highlights include the lonesome “You,” and while Cervenka was singing in a more conventional way than on earlier albums, it works for this song. This could’ve easily been a hit for a mainstream pop performer. The robust, rootsy “4th of July” – written by former Blaster Dave Alvin – is a deserved classic, expertly telling of the slow death of a relationship against a backdrop of fireworks and cigarettes and other sparks that light up the night but then fade away. Alvin’s role on this album is far from clear. Tony Gilkyson is credited with guitars and Alvin is listed as an “alumnus” playing guitar and bass, but the liner notes indicate that Alvin and Gilkyson overlapped in the band for a period. So do they both play on this album? Just one? Just the other? I have no idea. The classic X sound is alive and well on “In the Time It Takes,” with somebody doing a decent approximation of Zoom’s rockabilly riffing, and Doe and Cervenka dueting with the desperation of their youth. Similarly, dusty ballad “See How We Are” has a bruised beauty that ranks among the band’s best work.

Intense “Surprise Surprise” could easily be a power-pop number, though obviously the band gives it an Americana style reading, with some excellent guitar work (if I only I knew who to credit!). Too, the energy of “Left & Right” – with some nice guitar fills – is welcome on an album that frequently is content to sit in a mid-tempo groove. Shit gets surreal on the chiming “Holiday Story,” with lyrics about a dry Milwaukee and a depopulated New York. Opener “I’m Lost” is decent enough, but nothing special. I find the title (and thus, chorus) of “Cyrano de Berger’s Back” to be extremely annoying, but it’s not a bad song. Gilkyson was a touring member of Lone Justice prior to this. Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers played organ and keyboard on See How We Are. Cervenka, Doe, Alvin, and D.J. Bonebrake had previously played together in folk-country act the Knitters. Among the bonus tracks is a blistering cover of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”

The Best Thing About This Album

As good as “4th of July” is, I really think “You” is the best thing here.

Release Date

1987

The Cover Art

Finally, they use the clean, simple X I always wanted them to! And the color scheme is top-notch. I like how the title is stacked under the X. The image is appropriately mysterious but points deducted for its lack of sharpness. This is without debate the best X album cover.

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