Alphabetland/X

The classic X lineup has released Alphabetland, their first album of new studio material in thirty-five years.

X was one of three bands signed by Slash Records in the early 1980s as part of the L.A. punk rock scene, the other two being the Blasters and Los Lobos. These bands were labeled as part of the punk scene initially, but that really wasn’t true of their music. All three bands used elements of American rock and roll from earlier eras, but far from being retro bands like The Stray Cats, they incorporated the elements of these other genres and periods into their own sounds. Ultimately I think all three of bands would now occupy the Americana genre (Los Lobos having one foot squarely in both the Mexican folk and rock music scenes).

Of the three groups, X had the most punk credibility and for at least two albums they were a punk band. But even then they had elements that in many songs that stood out as retro American garage rock. I’ve always maintained that they were one of America’s greatest rock bands if not the greatest. For their first four albums, the group featured, on record, The Doors’ Ray Manzarek on organ, and on their debut album, they turned Jim Morrison’s ritualistic “Soul Kitchen” into a raucous romp full of gleeful idiot energy. 

After the first two fantastic (and brief) albums, the band began to expand their narrative worldview into a more working-class message that incorporates country/western and folk music into its style. The songs were still dark, but they presented a more introspective and personal perspective. Personally I have always felt that John Doe was a large part of moving the group off the ‘punk’ label and into a more ‘alternative Americana’

They went through a second phase when original guitarist Billy Zoom left and was replaced by Tony Gilkyson. The band still managed to produce a truly solid record, See How We Are, but there wasn’t much energy left after that. The last album of new material they released was Hey Zeus! in 1993 followed by years of cyclical reunions, live shows, and tours. Still a hot band onstage, John Doe mentioned in an interview that they felt no pressure to record new material. In fact, they didn’t really want to, because they were unsure that the original chemistry would still be there.

Late last year the band went into the studio to record a couple of tracks and found that the chemistry was there—not only in terms of playing but also writing new songs. This led to their reconvening for several additional sessions to record and quickly release a new and unexpected album Alphabetland. The new record is not only unexpected but unexpectedly great, recalling the group’s first two albums, Los Angeles and Wild Gift. If Alphabetland doesn’t quite live up to those records it’s mostly because unlike the first time around, we have expectations. Still, nitpicking over whether the band has collectively lost a step in the years spent as a legacy act is like asking if Michael Jordan and the Bulls’ second three-peat was as much of a win as the first.

X provides the same things on Alphabetland that they always have–a band that plays hard, solid songwriting, and the two-pronged vocals of Doe and Exene Cervenka. Guitarist Billy Zoom is on board, and he’s just as amazing at throwing bonafide rockabilly licks into the midst of sped-up metal riffs and high energy chords as ever. DJ Bonebrake is one of the most solid drummers to come out of an American punk band, able to play with punishing speed but also injecting more complex rhythm patterns on the medium-tempo numbers. 

The songs are all great, not a bad one in the bunch, and the topics are about what you’d expect from X–late nights, difficult relationships, hard-living, tough times. Being on the road and finding solace in the next shot of whiskey or cup or coffee or hitching a ride with a ghost trucker. 

Like The Doors, X has never shown much interest in changing their sound or adding gimmicky studio shine to their records. Clocking in at just over twenty-seven minutes, Alphabetland shows that the chemistry that made X one of America’s greatest rock bands is still there, undiminished by time. A number of the songs seem to speak to the life we live now, after COVID-19, even though they were recorded before that. “Water and Wine” looks at the dividing lines in society–“Who gets passed to the head of the line/Who gets water and who gets wine?”  The final track, “All The Time In The World” sets Exene’s Beat poet recitation against Billy Zoom’s loungey piano and guest guitarist Robby Krieger (yes, of The Doors) is the perfect post-COVID sentiment:

History is just one lost language after another

After another

And when they’re all taken together we still can’t decipher the past or decode the future

We’re just lost without a map

All the time in the world

Turns out not to be that much

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