By DAN MACINTOSH
The best thing you can say about X’s new Alphabetland – and it’s saying a lot! – is it sounds just like an X album. Not the sluggish X of Ain’t Love Grand, but the energized, vintage X of Los Angeles and Wild Gift. It’s an eleven-song collection comprised of cynically hopeful lyrics, Billy Zoom’s rockabilly-inspired guitar riffs, John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s distinctive vocal harmonies, which are all driven by D.J. Bonebrake’s primitively pounded beats. They’re back, and they sound just like hungry wolves.
Cervenka gives us wonderfully world-weary commentary on economic inequality with “Water and Wine,” which borrows a few details from one of Jesus’ miracles to help illustrate stark differences between haves and the have-nots. “There’s a heaven and a hell/And there’s an oh well,” she tells us, half-bored, half-disgusted.
Billy Zoom, who is famous for making the music go bang, actually helps the music to go boing here (You just must hear it, to believe it). The track is also accented by breathless, Jerry Lee Lewis-esque piano plunking. Cervenka also shines on “All The Time In The World,” the jazzy piano ballad that closes the album. On it, Cervenka delivers her spoken word vocal, like a time-warped Beatnik cool chick. “All The Time In The World” acts like a quiet workout wind-down because the ten songs that precede, blast off like rockets from Cape Canaveral.
Nine out of these eleven songs are brand new, with two (“Delta 88 Nightmare” and “Cyrano DeBerger’s Back”) having appeared on previous projects. These four musicians stayed busy while not recording as X. In fact, Los Angelenos still get to see the band play hometown gigs regularly. However, it’s magical whenever they create new music together. Zoom is masterly inventive throughout. His solo on “Star Chambered” is positively beautiful, acting as a kind of respite from Doe and Cervenka’s angerly traded vocal lines. Zoom’s input here is Dick Dale surf-y, in fact. In contrast, he gives “Cyrano DeBerger’s Back” a funky, soulful groove. The latter even includes a 50s rock saxophone solo.
All the album’s sonic variety illustrates why X’s music has remained relevant, long after emerging from Hollywood’s Masque club during Los Angeles’ punk rock genesis. Its members explored folk and country styles via their side project, The Knitters, but the spirit of punk rock never left their bodies – even though unplugged. That spirit is alive and well on Alphabetland, all these years later. This album is not a cash-grab. The world sure doesn’t seem to be calling out for the next great punk rock album, let alone a great rock album. X fans, however, have been longing for this day.
As fun as any recent X show is, these nights nevertheless feel a little too nostalgic for their own good. ‘Certainly,’ we mutter under our breath, ‘these amazing players have plenty of new X songs in ‘em.’ Alphabetland, proves our quiet whispers were equal parts true and prophetic for all those long years. We made a collective wish, and our wish has come true. It’s also better than we ever could have imagined, right down to the letter.