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.

X – More Fun In the New World

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

I am not sure why it is that I have the original release of this and not the reissue, unlike all the other X albums I own, but it offends my sense of uniformity. Ironically, this is my favorite X album and the one I would save from a very small natural disaster confined to the X section of my collection. 

What I Think of This Album

Not the best X album, but certainly the most enjoyable. Coming after the despairing Under the Big Black Sun, the band sounds relaxed and liberated, and there is no reason this album should not have been a mainstream hit. Start to finish, with one minor exception, this is thoroughly fun – never was an album title more appropriate.

“The New World” is a rollicking travelogue that doubles as a working class anthem and indictment of the Reagan years. John Doe and Exene Cervenka power their way through “We’re Having Much More Fun” while D.J. Bonebrake sounds like a train lacking all brakes. “True Love” – predictably – is the sole disappointment here; sounds a bit metal, actually. The band evokes the ‘50s with the excellent “Poor Girl,” with a heartfelt Doe vocal, while Billy Zoom toughens things up on “Make the Music Go Bang.” The cover of “Breathless” is perhaps sequenced too closely to “Poor Girl,” but whatever – the band (especially Zoom and, a distant second, Cervenka) sounds great on the Jerry Lee Lewis hit (written by Otis Blackmore, an African-American songwriter who also composed “Great Balls of Fire,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” and “Return to Sender”).

The paranoid-stoked ballad “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” is an existential exploration of what it means to be an American – it’s not uplifting! “Devil Dog” gives Zoom ample room to show off – really, it’s the only reason this song exists, and that is a totally defensible choice. Zoom adds rockabilly flair to “Painting the Town Blue,” and “Hot House” also benefits from his work. Another and arguably stronger ballad arrives in “Drunk In my Past,” which may lack the lyrical scope of “Bad Thoughts” but is musically more compelling. A rampaging “I See Red” continues the hot streak on this record. Finally, X breaks out the funk in the eye-opening “True Love Pt. #2,” (that’s not a typo – it’s really “Pt. #”) which quotes or references more songs than your average Beastie Boys album, and adeptly and firmly links punk into the great chain of rock n’ roll. This was the final X album produced by Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, and perhaps not coincidentally, the last great X album.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Poor Girl” deserves to be much better known.

Release Date

September, 1983

The Cover Art

Mmm, no. Too busy and at the same time, boring. I really don’t appreciate how the yellow box intrudes upon the green text. That’s a crime.

X – Under the Big Black Sun

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

My not-very-well developed theory is that the more X moved away from straight punk, the better they got. Wisely, they moved backwards towards roots music, which was consistent with Billy Zoom’s history in Gene Vincent’s band and John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s studious obsession with Americana and blue-collar stories. Unlike the Blasters, though, X were punk at their core and they never called attention to their influences or sound; I never got the sense they wanted to be rewarded or were trying to teach you something. They simply were.

What I Think of This Album

Arguably, the best X album, this is seriously dark and despairing, informed as it is by the death-by-drunk-driver of Cervenka’s sister two years earlier.

“The Hungry Wolf” is appropriately titled, and not just because this is actually a song about wolves (at least nominally); untamed and uncowed, Doe stalks around DJ Bonebrake’s pounding toms and Zoom’s riffage, none of it sounding anything like punk. Zoom gets an album credit for “wolf howls,” which is by itself a sign of how this band’s palette has expanded (actually, his credits for saxophone and clarinet are probably more relevant in that respect). A more rockabilly sound presents itself on “Motel Room In My Bed,” another classic Cervenka/Doe duet, full of yearning and frustration. The specter of Mireille Cervenka haunts the slightly disturbing “Riding With Mary,” which I don’t much care for, but it’s undeniably powerful. There is a ‘50’s high school prom feel to “Come Back to Me,” but I find Cervenka’s vocal annoying here; this is yet another song about her sister. Much better is the title track, with an excellent riff from Zoom, a modified Bo Diddley beat, and a fantastic performance from Cervenka (her way around “you can put him in fish pond” is worth the price of the album), with the occasional harmony from Doe.

Cervenka shines again on “Because I Do,” wailing impressively (“I am drunk over you”) while Zoom shoots lightning bolts from his guitar. Zoom and Bonebrake carry the neutrino sound of “Blue Spark.” The sprightly, Latin-esque “Dancing with Tears In My Eyes” seems like a colorful cover until you realize Cervenka is singing about her sister. Zoom gets his chance on the sax on the freeway-burning “Real Child of Hell.” The intro call-and-response of “How I (Learned My Lesson)” is all you need to hear to go all in on this desperate, straining rocker. The album ends on the depressing “The Have Nots,” moving fully into roots rock territory and ending with an impressively long list of taverns, like some fucking Kerouac fever dream; this is the spiritual older cousin to the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular.” Ray Manzarek (the Doors) once again produced this album, and plays a nice keyboard on the single version of “Riding With Mary” added on a bonus track on the reissue.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Everybody asks me how I’m doing / I’m doing everything alone”

Release Date

July, 1982

The Cover Art

I like the comic book style art, and the color scheme and solitary imagery well evoke the tone of the music. I don’t like the stylized X, which should be much starker and simpler. The font for the album title is wrong and too large, but the blue works.

X – Wild Gift

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

X is another of these bands that I like a lot but can’t honestly claim to love. I own a good number of their albums, and I think they have some great songs; also, Billy Zoom is super cool, DJ Bonebrake has a great name for a drummer (“Dude, he hits so hard he BREAKS BONES”), and John and Exene are an iconic pair. But if I was given 30 minutes to freestyle in front of the Lincoln Memorial about bands I love, X wouldn’t even come close to getting a mention. Adding to this, I really don’t like the debut album, Los Angeles, which is widely considered to be a classic. Oh well.

What I Think of This Album

Ray Manzarek of the Doors produced this, which I find a little weird but not a lot; I don’t think there needs to be an obvious connection between producer and band. In any event, this is a pretty clean sounding album for a punk band, though X was already starting to pull at the threads of that cloak on this second outing.

In particular, the subtly tense “Adult Books” is a successful attempt at Latin-esque rhythms and mood manipulation; the coda, when the vocals lilt upwards at the end of the phrases, is excellent. Much more in keeping with the band’s style, “The Once Over Twice” has Zoom spraying rockabilly riffs everywhere while John Doe and Exene Cervenka harmonize about how terrible men are. Bonebrake propels the urgent “We’re Desperate,” an electrifying anthem for the downtrodden and dispossessed. Exene’s first solo composition is the repetitive “I’m Coming Over,” which for all its brutal simplicity is not unenjoyable. The underappreciated “It’s Who You Know” is a lot of fun. All the band’s strength’s are on display on the classic “In This House That I Call Home,” with a great bass riff, and excellent work from Zoom, as well as Bonebrake hitting every surface within reach about 9,000 times, and an outstanding vocal take from the front couple.

Zoom shines again on “Beyond and Back,” and Exene’s “shut up and smoke” may not be on par with Dorothy Parker but it is terrifically lethal. The excellent “When Our Love Passed Out On the Couch” is another of the desperate songs of romance that characterize this album. “Year One” is fantastic, with party handclaps, probably Cervenka’s best vocal on the album, and riffs galore from Zoom. The only bad news here is “Universal Corner,” which has Zoom playing in a fairly traditional hard rock style; not a keeper and overlong. I strongly dislike everything about “White Girl;” just can’t tolerate even a second of it, though I guess a lot of people like it. And “Back 2 the Base” is dull filler. The bonus tracks on my reissue range from cool to not awesome.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Shut up and smoke!” (but don’t, because smoking is like, really bad for you). A close second is “last night everything broke.”

Release Date

1981 (original), 2001 (reissue)

The Cover Art

Kind of messy and confusing. Not a fan.

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