Quite honestly, this one doesn’t fit. The album X made while the house was burning down (along with the finalized divorce papers, the family dog, and any zeal for music making) was their fifth realease, Ain’t Love Grand. That album, a veritable pop-metal disaster was the absolute implosion. Almost none of its songs feature the dual vocals of Exene Cerveneka and John Doe (which is half the reason most people show up for X anyway) and instead, one singer is usually just playing backup to the other, sounding almost like some bizzaro punk Abba. Billy Zoom’s tangled rockabilly turned showoff turned tarburning guitar sound is flattened to Guitar Center chugging, and DJ Bonebreak’s drums sound like regimented medication. Ain’t Love Grand was when Excene and John’s Marriage finally fell apart, it was when Billy Zoom got fed up and left, and it was when the band decided they, for some reason wanted something played on the radio. I’m not going to write about it, because I don’t like it that much, but I really do love X, and rather than pretending to find depth or value in a set of mostly strained, uneventful tracks, i’d rather tell you guys about the aftermath.
See How We Are was waking up the next morning and realizing exactly how much had been lost. It was searching through the burning windowframes for a toothbrush and a phonechord. It is an album comprised of one last, hulking exhale and then the signature on the DNR form. The album, recorded with guest guitarists Dave Alvin (from the LA roots/punk band The Blasters) and Tony Gilkyson was probably the most beautiful way that a band like X could die.
Most of this album feels like it’s driving too late at night after a long talk, almost swerving off the road and mumbling to the cop that it hasn’t had anything to drink. If every X album is secretly about LA, then See How We Are finds the band just past city limits, looking back and saying to itself “i’m too old for this shit.” Like Ain’t Love Grand, a lot of these songs sound like songs written specifically for either John Doe or Excene and are sung usually by one of them as well. Unlike Ain’t Love…, these songs are especially good.
A lot of these songs deal with the position X was stuck in as they were recording; venerable giant presiding over a crumbling scene. “Anyone could fill your shoes,” an Excene song that is about as poppy as she ever got, could either be about ex-husband John, or a diatribe against self righteous scenesters. “Surprise Surprise” is a frank song that more or less spells out exactly how much of a nostalgia act X believe themselves to have become, playing shows to people who are seeing them just to say they saw X. And Fourth of July, written By Dave Alvin for the band, is the inverse of X’s first hit “Los Angeles.” While that song was spinning out of control so fast it made a black hole that created as much as it destroyed, “Fourth Of July” stops everything in the eyes of just one person overwhelemed and fatigued by living in 1980s Los Angeles.
So yeah, the album is, like All Shook Down, The Final Cut, or Abbey Road, largely a two part solo album for the group’s two songwriters. But there’s another side to it which makes it so endearing; it sounds like the band, as divided fractured as they were at this point, are actually having some fun with these songs. “In The Time It Takes,” the only song on the album that really approaches the wolf-baiting feel of X’s earlier material, seems less like a lament of debauchery and loneliness and more like flat out bragging. The title track is probably the only X song I can think of that has traditional harmonies, and while there is one absolute clunker of a line that almost sinks the whole song (“my friend says ‘i’m at a bar, and i’m in love.’ I say ‘oh really? What’s this one’s name?’ She says ‘his first name is homeboy.’ I say ‘could his last name be trouble?’”), it remains a rusted, warm song. Album closer “Cyrano De Berger’s Back” sounds like a well earned victory lap, with DJ Bonbreak playing a beat that struts off into the desert dusk, and ending with a guitar solo that plays homage to the angular style of the absent Billy Zoom. The band ended the album with the perfect tribute song to themselves, something for the photo montage at the over-capacity funeral. They had earned it at this point.
those of you who live in san fran, la, chicago, pbgh, phldph, smmrvll mass, or nw yrk, may I please suggest some plans for late fall? (seriously, if you’ve never heard I often dream of trains, it’s certainly worth it).