X – Wild Gift

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I fucking hate nihilism.

I know someone who can’t go a day without smoking through a pack of 25 cigarettes, 1-2 grams of weed, is dating a girl who believes she’s been in a long-term monogamous relationship (the first part is true), makes a point to spend at least a hundred dollars on alcohol each night he goes out, has sometimes mixed Tylenol and alcohol to get drunk faster despite the likelihood of resulting death, believes in driving home drunk despite having witnessed several friends die from the ordeal, whatever. It’s pathetic. He’ll never admit to hating life, of course, but I’m under the impression that if you don’t think life is worth living without stumbling through it high on substances every minute of every day, then you simply don’t think life is worth living. Despite critics’ constant pigeonholing that X were punk’s great nihilists, they never were. Like Clay, the protagonist from Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, X (who also briefly found themselves in the book) found themselves in a culture immersed in recreational drugs, rape and racism, made up of people with more money than they knew what to do with, who wouldn’t know love if it hit them with a bag of bricks, documented on debut, Los Angeles.

RollingStone’s Debra Rae Cohen’s review hits all the points of why someone would find Wild Gift better than Los Angeles: “In the year since their debut LP, Los Angeles, was released […], X have started to suffer a backlash from L.A. punk-scene purists who view the group’s increasing instrumental accomplishment, musical range and national following with suspicion.” Yeah, Ray Manzarek doesn’t throw in any organ shenanigans into Wild Gift in response to the children’s debate as to what constitutes punk music, and as a result, you’re not going to find anything as wholesome as “The World’s a Mess; It’s in My Kiss.” True, Billy Zoom steps in to fill the void (for example, see his work on “Universal Corner” and “In This House That I Call Home”), but newsflash! He was doing that anyway on Los Angeles. To me, this is a clear regression: a punk band who were bound to transcend punk music the minute they played their first chord making by-the-numbers punk music. What does the fact that they decided to remake their 1978 single Adult Books / We’re Desperate into their second album tell you? They’re running out of ideas.

But it’ll take them a couple more albums and some heartbreak before they hit bottom. Slash records might not have been huge, but it certainly had more funds available than Dangerhouse records, and they scrub “Adult Books” and “We’re Desperate” clean without losing any of its original value (they even make “Adult Books” slightly more melodic, as if that were a bad thing). Yeah, DJ Bonebrake’s hi-hats disappear in the mix in “Adult Books,” but Billy Zoom’s guitar takes full center-stage so it’s hard to really care. Music is full of motion, and “Adult Books,” despite being slower in tempo compared to the rest of these tracks, is three minutes’ worth. The way Billy Zoom’s fingerpicked guitar drops you into the one-two shoulder-shake of the final beat of each measure in the verse perfectly encapsulates summertime, that feeling of just lifting your arms and swaying. And listen to the song’s outro, which features both vocalists whooping “Adult BOOK(S)!” (they sound like they stopped caring about pronouncing the ‘s’ halfway through) in a section that feels like it’s faster than the preceding track, made completely natural by the sheer chug of the chorus that bridges it and the verse.

Despite my thesis that Wild Gift isn’t as good as Los Angeles, it does possess a little something-something that their debut didn’t. They’re no longer interested in simply making social commentary on the life around them. “We’re Desperate” is an example of this: listen to how the chorused cries of “WE’RE DESPERATE” get more and more—well—desperate, following each response, “GET USED TO IT!” whereas their debut would’ve simply settled with “WE’RE DESPERATE” with no response in sight. Elsewhere, I’ll take to using allmusic Mark Deming’s words, “while the herky-jerky bark of Billy Zoom’s guitar hardly makes the song sound comfortable, the crazed but precise rhythms laid down by D.J. Bonebrake (influenced by Captain Beefheart) push the dichotomy even further — his beats are so good you want to dance to them, and so fractured that it’s all but impossible, which matches the inherent contradictions of a song about bohemian poverty in one of America’s wealthiest cities just fine.

Elsewhere, I’ll take to Robert Christgau in describing part of Wild Gift’s most alluring charm (yours truly has bolded the key sentence): “Hippies couldn’t understand jealousy because they believed in universal love; punks can’t understand it because they believe sex is a doomed reflex of existentially discrete monads. As X-Catholics obsessed with a guilt they can’t accept and committed to a subculture that gives them no peace, Exene and John Doe are prey to both misconceptions, and their struggle with them is thrilling and edifying–would the Ramones could cop to such wisdom. Who knows whether the insightful ministrations of their guitarist will prove as therapeutic for them as for you and me, but I say trust a bohemian bearing gifts. How often do we get a great love album and a great punk album in the same package?

Because love is at the heart of Wild Gift, and in a broader sense, drives X into making great music (at this point anyway).  Take “Adult Books,” for instance. The first lyric, “Many, many guys and girls / All real beauties” sounds like romanticism of the single life, but it’s quickly debunked, “Everybody making a stab / They hurt themselves / Singles rule the world / Feeding on fresh blood.” Elsewhere, despite the second verse beginning with bondage in what I would’ve originally expected a “Johny Hit and Run Paulene” outcome, especially the way it creates fictional characters, it doesn’t play out that way, “Clifford shackles Jane / Throws her on the floor / She says, no, no, yes / And he cuts the chains” (listen especially to the vocal crescendo is “no, no, yes”). Elsewhere, “He just goes for that special girl / Who says, ‘no,’” is an oddly romantic and stunningly simple line that I would’ve never expected to be uttered from the band (yes, I know it was their first song, get out of here, I’m making a point).

Similarly, “It’s Who You Know” does the same; lines like “Make my life complete / When I think of the ways I can use you” are made less icky when they’re followed by “Get me off the streets / Then we spend the night in bed,” while “A rose coming out of a photo” is a successful bit of poetry that I wouldn’t have expected from John Doe’s mouth. Elsewhere, romance is to be found in opener “The Once Over Twice,” a sad song (“I died a thousand times / Maybe you don’t but I do got a hole in my heart / Size of my heart, size of my heart”) written about a sad song (“I just heard the sad song by another band”) after Exene Cervenka gets rejected by the lead singer, “He gave me the once over twice / I said “When,” he said, “Okay, so long.”” Meanwhile, single “White Girl” is a test against John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s marriage, a love song by John Doe about the Germs’ Lorna Doom. I’ll defer to allmusic’s Rick Anderson again, “This fact lends a certain extra weight to Exene’s rather tired-sounding echoes of Doe’s more fervid descriptors (“She’s blonde,” “Nineteen,” etc.) and to the fact that her vinegary harmony vocals on the chorus sound more like a sigh of resignation than anything else.”

But for all my praise, I’ll use Mark Prindle’s closing paragraph to summarize Wild Gift’s flaws: “Lots of people think that this is the ultimate X record, but I’m a bit fettered by the sheer abundancy of interchangable (sic) goodtime choogle rock on here – sure, it’s got some fanforkintastic stuff, but it’s also got throwaways like “It’s Who You Know” and “In This House That I Call Home,” that just don’t register at all when stacked up against all the other killer tracks. Mainly it’s just not as tight, concise and focused as the debutthole. I suppose that’s my point.” That being said, closer “Year 1” manages to do a lot in little more than a minute, realizing that songs need more than just a lone hook (“I’m Coming Over”) or a guitar (“Back 2 The Base”); it can have both. After a brief intro courtesy of DJ Bonebrake, Exene Cervenka slogs through the past, present and future (“They’re waiting for the son, for any son to come”). Meanwhile, in between the verses where he’s pretending he’s Eddie Cochran, Billy Zoom manages to fit in a sizable guitar solo. A closer that features so much cheering, whooping and hand-clapping simply couldn’t be nihilistic.

“People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as she drives up the onramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk. Not the mud that had splattered on the legs of my jeans, which felt kind of cold and loose, earlier that day at an airport in New Hampshire. Not the stain on the arm of the wrinkled, damp shirt I wear, a shirt which looked fresh and clean this morning. Not the tear on the neck of my gray argyle vest, which seems vaguely more eastern than before, especially next to Blair’s clean tight jeans and her pale-blue shirt. All of this seems irrelevant next to that one sentence. It seems easier to hear that people are afraid to merge than “I’m pretty sure Muriel is anorexic” or the singer on the radio crying out about magnetic waves. Nothing else seems to matter to me but those ten words. Not the warm winds, which seem to propel the car down the empty asphalt freeway, or the faded smell of marijuana which still faintly permeates Blaire’s car. All it comes down to is the fact that I’m a boy coming home for a month and meeting someone whom I haven’t seen for four months and people are afraid to merge.”

A-

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