X | ALPHABETLAND | (Fat Possum)
4 1/2 out of 5 stars
Eleven songs squeezed into just under a half hour (only one over three minutes), played by the original X lineup? Hey ho, let’s go!
ALPHABETLAND, the album that came out of nowhere is streaming only (no physical release date as of now) and perhaps the lack of typical advance publicity (early single teases, videos, interviews—although this one from American Songwriter dropped the day of its release– etc.) works to its advantage since all but the most ardent fans of these LA icons were taken by surprise at its sudden appearance. It’s a refreshingly punk move from a bunch of folks well into their 60s who have always marched to the beat of their own drum, even when signed to a major label in the 80s.
John Doe and ex-wife Exene Cervenka’s harmonies on tunes like “Free” and the frantic “Delta 88” sound as fresh and edgy as on the group’s propulsive 1980 debut, guitarist Billy Zoom, who has had plenty of health challenges in recent years, cranks out shards of rockabilly-influenced chords like the hungry wolf celebrated in one of X’s songs (he even takes a rare solo in “Angels of the Road”) and drummer D.J. Bonebrake flails away with the agitated, precise, energetic beats that have always fueled the band’s raw yet tuneful attack.
Exene takes more solo vocals than usual and when she and Doe swap leads on “Star Chambered” as Zoom swoops in with spaghetti Western leads before everything comes to a sudden stop just over two minutes, you’ll think these performances where captured forty some years ago and just located hidden in some music vault. Even a frisky, pop-styled, revised version of “Cyrano deBerger’s Back” (originally recorded in 1987) is a welcome reminder of an under-the-radar track. Only “All the Time in the World,” the closing spoken word piece from Exene with odd jazz piano accompaniment feels tacked on and out of place. Although the words “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” are particularly ominous under the haze of these coronavirus days.
But for the preceding 10 tracks, X proves that performing together for the past 20 years on the road, even playing older music, has kept their focus sharp and instrumental chops sturdy. Make a mix tape of the best X songs over the decades, throw some of these tracks in, and few will believe they were recorded over three decades past the group’s heyday. The album also arrives in desperate times, when we all need something/anything, to provide a psychological lift.
It’s not just an impressive, even unprecedented comeback, but one that resonates with the vitality and dizzying power of X’s finest music.
And that is the highest compliment of all.