Favorite Tracks: “ALPHABETLAND,” “I Gotta Fever, “Angel on the Road,” “Goodbye Year, Goodbye”
X is a Los Angeles institution. From their formation in 1977 to dissolution of the band’s original lineup in 1986, X preached the pulse of the LA scene with the raw energy of punk while always coming off more refined and poetic than their peers in the adjacent hardcore scene. Brought together by guitarist Billy Zoom and singer/bassist John Doe’s nearly identical ads in The Recycler looking to start a band with no bullshit, the two enlisted Exene Cervenka and drummer DJ Bonebrake to release four untouchable albums from 1980 to 1985. Unfortunately, the band’s founding principle of no bullshit was thrown out with the band’s fifth album AIN’T LOVE GRAND, an overproduced collection of mid-tempo, watered-down attempts at nabbing the mainstream success Zoom had always wanted. They didn’t get it, so he left for 22 years before reuniting with the band 1998, and they’ve been touring behind their classic albums ever since.
It’s hard to gauge what the demand was, if there was any at all, for a brand new X album with the original lineup. It was definitely there when they first reunited in 1998 for the BEYOND AND BACK anthology that focused on the Zoom era, but hardcore fans of the band were also more than happy to be able to relive their glory days seeing the band perform the good stuff and introduce their kids to “real punk.” X has definitely cashed in on the nostalgia, regulary touring behind their landmark debut LOS ANGELES at every relevant anniversary. When the plans to celebrate the album’s 40th were put on hold due to the COVID-19 situation, the band and their current label, Fat Possum, decided the world was ready for ALPHABETLAND, their first album in 35 years to feature all four original members. Aiming to recover lost touring revenue, X opted to release the album exclusively on Bandcamp for the first week, and the diehard devotees came out in droves, buying out every colored vinyl variant within the first couple hours, eager to ingest this unheard music. Demand, apparently, was there.
After getting through ALPHABETLAND’s whirlwind 27 minutes, you quickly realize that you HAVE heard this music. It’s undeniably X doing what they do best, which is exactly what fans who have chosen to relive those first four albums again and again every time would want. The album’s title track is built around a perfectly distorted punchy Zoom riff—seriously, Zoom has one of the best guitar tones in all of punk rock—and is complimented by slightly cleaner, ringing chords over Bonebrake’s rock steady rhythm. Doe and Cervenka’s vocal duties are split pretty evenly across ALPHABETLAND, with Doe backing up Cervenka on the title track before the roles are switched on the toe-tapping “Free.” Though the former couple have always been the primary credited songwriters for X, all four members are given equal credit for the songs on ALPHABETLAND in order to spread the love (money). Cervenka’s lyrics on the title track are as poetic and clever as ever; upon first hearing her sing “Tearing up the sidewalks / Pouring wet cement / Erasing your initials / Alphabet wrecked,” I wondered if she was referencing her and Doe’s names carved into the curb outside of their old apartment on Genesee in West Hollywood, but a Facebook group for old punks assured me that they are still there.
“Water & Wine” follows in the footsteps of classic X cuts like “The Have Nots” or ‘We’re Desperate” as it addresses the always prevalent issues of class disparity. With all the members of X well into their 60s (Zoom is 73), they have no illusions about starting any kind of revolution, but Cervenka has definitely seen enough to wonder: “Who has to wait at the end of the line / Who gets water and who gets wine?” The track is one of the more ready-for-radio offerings on the record, but also one of the more dynamic, allowing Zoom to wear several hats as he lays down some sax and piano as the song builds after a signature scorching Chuck Berry-esque lead.
A few of the tracks on ALPHABETLAND are reinvigorated versions of outtakes that have appeared across the expanded editions of their first four albums or the BEYOND AND BACK anthology. “I Gotta Fever,” the stand-out Doe cut on the album, was tested under the name “Heater” during the WILD GIFT sessions, while the bombastic “Delta 88 Nightmare” and sentimental “Cyrano de Berger’s Back” date back earlier to LOS ANGELES, the latter being reworked with The Flesh Eaters, the former a Zoom-less X song on SEE HOW WE ARE. ALPHABETLAND’s version of “Delta 88 Nightmare” in particular finally gets it right, with a sped-up tempo and Zoom’s funky strumming and saxophone line doing the track justice 40 years after its genesis.
The album’s spoken word closer, “All The Time In The World,” is completely unnecessary, no matter how poignant Cervenka’s prose may be. It kills the consistent upbeat pacing that could have concluded perfectly with the emotionally soaring “Goodbye Year, Goodbye,” a slight misstep in an otherwise grand return to form. ALPHABETLAND is the X album that their hardcore fans have always wanted, but stopped asking for long ago. The band could have gone on touring those first four albums until they decided to retire, and no one would have complained. After my first listen, I briefly imagined what it would be like if X had been releasing albums this good on a regular basis following their reunion in ‘98, but I don’t think it would have lasted. The need to branch out would have crept in, decisions about what old material needed to be pushed out of the live set would begin, and the bullshit that brought them down the first time would have reared its ugly head once again. The 35 years of reflection on what went wrong and, more importantly, what they got right the first time around, has allowed X to create an authentic album that will sit nicely on shelf next to the records that earned them such a devoted audience in the first place.