Sunday, June 8, 2008

X-Under the Big Black Sun

I think it's safe to say that most folks have two or three records that they will always come back to. It's a magical thing. Every time you stop and listen to one of your faves, you find new sound combinations, new intrigue or emotional resonance in the lyrics, fresh nuance in the mixing, etc. Most bands are lucky to have one great song, and so much the better for the listener when an entire release is great. The search for recordings with that quality must contribute in large part to the impulse in so many of us to keep searching out new ones, not to mention the relatively recent impulse to blog about them. Despite the cost, the space issues, the admonitions from loved ones to please stop wasting our time on that stuff, we seek out fresh (at least to us) records. Real pleasure resides therein.
Under the Big Black Sun is one of my life-long favorites. I've had a copy of it in every format (shame on you iTunes, cutting out the beginning bars of the Hungry Wolf!). X always seemed to be a stand-out act from the L.A. punk scene, and for me this one is their pinnacle moment.
Let's start with the rhythm section. You'd be hard pressed to find a band as rhythmically greased as X sound on this one. Obviously D.J. Bonebreak's presence doesn't hurt them on that front. If Chuck Biscuits was the Keith Moon of Punk, I'd say D.J. was said movement's John Bonham. He grounded his band with a solid simplicity, which under further scrutiny reveals layers of stylistic complexity. His drumming drives the tunes here, never overbearing, but at no moment relegated to the background. Billy Zoom's guitar playing slides around all over the beat laid down by Bonebreak. It's very much lead guitar, but always leading from within the rhythm dictated by the song. His sounds are raw without being dumb, and the runs, swoops and dive bombs verge on Ginn levels of dramatic flair. In John Doe we find another bass player that is content to anchor the songs, playing the melody and leaving it at that.
X always seemed to be a band with a definite poetic focus. Vocals and lyrics are obviously going to matter a lot in such a band. On Under the Big Black Sun, Exene and Doe do a great job with singing and lyrics. So often one gets sacrificed for the other, but here there is a balance that's pretty amazing. There is never a sense of Diva or "chick singer" from Exene's voice. Her voice is emotional, and somewhat hot, but it never gets annoying. Her country influences serve her well. John Doe sticks to a cooler, Everyman sort of approach, also country-colored, but you can hear the strain of urban life in his vocalizing as well. Their harmonizing is nicely edited. They pick great moments to leave the singing up to their foil, and great moments to join in. These moments give added impact to the lyrics. Ah, yes, the lyrics. Earlier X releases are characterized by personal lyrical content, an obviously great approach, as opposed to the phony "meaningfulness" of music industry tripe X stood in contrast to. On this album, the lyrics seem to paint from a bit broader perspective, at times sounding like one long rumination on the Human Condition, filtered through an American lens by way of working Los Angeles (in contrast to the Hollywoodland myth of Unlimited Anything America). My sense is that the lyrics describe working the angles just as much as punching the clock. Of particular depth is the GREAT work song The Have Nots. I want that one sent out into Space by NASA.
In recent years I've read review writing that bashes X. I just can't understand this. I can't see how a group this tight and powerful could be written off so easily, especially when compared to so much of the music that was being produced contemporaneously. Yes, the quality of their music began to slide after this one. Yes, they were careerists, I guess. Regardless of all that, Under the Big Black Sun transcends time for me. It's not obscure, but I find it to be rare. It's rarity lies in the way it hangs together so perfectly, in my opinion. I'll always love it.

7 comments:

Michael said...

Your best post yet, hands down.

It's interesting you speak of a lens at work here. X eschewed big studio cameras but had a kind of filmic sense underpinning this record just the same. That mock-silent movie video for "Because I Do" - totally spellbinding - proved it!

We are liquid said...

Duuude! I've not seen that video. I'll have to seek and appreciate. Gotta love the noir-ish cover, too.
I just can't get enough of that record! Thanks for the Ups! How is life in London? Any shows lately? I really want to see Witch Hats, who'll be in town from Down Under, but they seem to be playing some warehouse that I can't find an address for. Arhgh!

We are liquid said...

I've now seen the video. Sweet. I wish I had a copy of Hollywood Babylon handy. Exene! The Goth-man's dream!

Michael said...

No imminent gigs I'm due to see, but that's just cause I've been laying a bit low nursing nasty hayfever problems recently. Ugghh. I'll haveta get off my ass and troll around to see who's coming to London this summer.

I did manage to see SPARKS do their Big Beat rec live as part of their 21 albums in 21 nights run here last month - stay tuned, I'll be posting something about that one day soon.

We are liquid said...

Sparks in London. Yeah! Sounds cool. Last show I saw was Blowfly with AntiSeen. Fun times at a very swanky downtown Oakland R&B club. Weird mix of crusty punks and Urban cool.

Nazz Nomad said...

I have fond memories of being in the Elektra Records offices in NYC listening to "Big Black Sun" for the first with the members of X in attendance. The first chunky chords of "Hungry Wolf" and looking over at Billy Zoom sitting across a conference table.
Aaahhh, college.


"Riding With Mary" still gives me the creeps.

We are liquid said...

Why the creeps? Creeps from the mood of the song? I think that the subject matter is rather dark.