Album Review

X - Los Angeles / Wild Gift / Under The Big Black Sun

X - Los Angeles/Wild Gift/ Under The Big Black Sun

"The World's A Mess; It's In My Kiss" -- Los Angeles' closing track aptly encapsulates X's sustaining power and accomplishment: wresting the universal from deeply felt personal experience. Again and again, these poets-turned-punks capture the telling detail -- snatches of overheard conversation, a seemingly random purchase, a rape fantasy told in elliptical montage -- that imbues their L.A. stories with flesh, gravity, substance. Of course, such stories often risk the willfully naive or perversely overwrought, and several of Los Angeles' lesser numbers are overwhelmed by a one-dimensional romanticization that betokens Hollywood. In the end, what guarantees the 1980 debut its exalted status is the band's wholly-formed attack -- fast and lean, but cleaner and more overtly generous-spirited than the punk norm. Their not-so-secret weapon Billy Zoom, a junk guitar virtuoso rivaling Johnny Thunders and Bob Stinson, effortlessly plunders rock's vast, varied songbook. Second gun D.J. Bonebrake's simple, propulsive drumming gooses the music's headlong momentum, as John Doe and Exene Cervenka scream and scrape atop his "bolts of lightning" (from the liners). That pair's discordant harmonies are what ultimately identify X as punk -- his warm, attractive midrange offset by her startling vaults from kittenish purr to howling shoutdown. Doe and Cervenka's evolving relationship forms the cornerstone of the band's follow-up Wild Gift, an album that for once actually outstrips its title boast. Firmly rooted in the recently married couple's Santa Monica Boulevard homelife, the album's scenes from a marriage are lyrically sharper and more felt than the debut's glimpses of the "sex and dying" demimonde. "We're Desperate" recasts a renter's rant as down-and-outers' anthem; "The Once Over Twice" and "White Girl" contemplate infidelity while risking very real guilt; and "When Our Love Passed Out On The Couch" updates "The World's A Mess" while presaging Amy Rigby's "Beer and Kisses". Throughout, the band's tight weave yields an embarrassment of aural pleasures and surprises. Zoom's fills are, if possible, even more inventive, and Bonebrake's drumming is lighter, more shapely. A surprise runner-up to the Clash's Sandinista! in the 1981 Village Voice critics poll, X's sophomore effort has certainly outlasted that band's bloated, albeit noble 3-LP time-capsule. Even a passing glance at the cover of Wild Gift, redolent in John Waters-style kitsch, confirms X as punks-by-association. With roots in poetry and libraries, Gene Vincent and classical music, band members were thrift-store bohos drawn to L.A.'s punk arena by its sense of community, its opportunity for self-expression. Hardly the poseurs that jealous scenesters sometimes pegged them as, X injected a little "outside world" into an increasingly insular, self-destructive scene. Drawing upon their lived lives, the band created an expansive music exploding with ideas and possibilities -- a conception that effortlessly encompasses both Jerry Lee soundtrack stroke and hyper-driven Doors toss-off. X's third album, Under The Big Black Sun, brings it all back home, showcasing the band's impressive breadth while acknowledging their unfashionable influences -- Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran. As Doe notes, after proving how musical and inclusive punk could be, "it was time to make our music bigger." Mixing familiar double-time rockers with more reflective midtempo efforts, the album adopts an ominous tone -- a mournful slow dance, a lonely saxophone shiver. True to their L.A. roots, Big Black Sun is X's noir. The band wanders a desolate landscape of open highways and cheesy motel rooms, working-class bars and run-down carny rides, all haunted by the ghost of Cervenka's recently deceased sister. The album's masterful blend of tension and release (marred only by a couple of nondescript late-album duds) culminates in an emotionally charged Tin Pan Alley recontextualization, "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes". As the 1997 two-disc anthology Beyond And Back unintentionally demonstrates, X didn't shelve many unreleased gems during their prime. Thus, Rhino's much-vaunted "bonus" material inevitably indulges alternate versions (singles, demos, live tracks) that surprisingly demonstrate how polished and thought-out the band's official product actually is. In general, the alternates are more skeletal, faster, punker -- Doe's vocals are uncharacteristically raw and unkempt. Meanwhile, the concert takes demonstrate the flexibility and resilience of X's musical conception; onstage vocal and instrumental flourishes only intensify the originals' carefully crafted studio dynamics. But such insights (and minor pleasures) are just footnotes to the recorded testament of one of the finest American bands of the early '80s. And if Los Angeles' doom-and-gloom patina now seems overly determined (Spin's raves to the contrary), then Big Black Sun's quarter-turn toward maturity and introspection sounds more confident and substantive, while Wild Gift's wild gift remains an essential punk rock touchstone.