For a band with a singer with this much gravel in his throat, X bear startling similarities to normal-voiced Joe Jackson. Both X and Jackson started out in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, riding the coattails of punk and then surfing the New Wave. Both soldiered on after those scenes imploded. And both are around today, somewhat to the surprise of the artists themselves (X is called “The Band They Can’t Kill”).
Except that while Jackson took to exploring (indulging?) the jazz interests that revealed him to be the musicology student he really is, X never lost their belligerency. Not that much of it, anyway—the three members of Fourplay that show up here aren’t from that Fourplay, they’re from the other jazz-pop band of the same name, the one that plays Led Zeppelin and Metallica covers (That’s right: two bands named X and two bands named Fourplay, with one of the former and one of the latter sharing a stage to celebrate the former’s 25th anniversary, a date that predates by not that much the anniversary of the other band of the same name. Confused yet?).
While Jackson got by on his immaculate craft, X’s staying power derives from Steve Lucas’s voice and the band’s complementary musical balls. Which too often means that, when trying to get to the heart of the songs, one doesn’t run into much but a gruff masculinity of—it would seem—naturally theatrical proportions. There’s swagger, sure, but not much of the hooks or humor that can make such swagger seem less brutish or at least friendlier to the ears. Granted, the swagger isn’t the brutish swagger so often evidenced by Dubya or partner-in-crime Rumsfeld, the brutish swagger of those who think they have more than made up for in power what they lack in conscience or, as the case may be, brains.
Rather, the swagger here is the swagger of the outsider, one of defiance rather than bullying. Which has more staying power than bullying swagger (let’s hope) but which nonetheless is not, by itself, endlessly appealing.
It’s significant that the closer here is “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”, though not the one Joan Jett made famous. (As far as songs go, “Dream Baby” is Roy Orbison’s and “Mother” is John Lennon’s, though “Ooh Baby” should not be confused with the Miracles’ “Ooh Baby Baby”. They’re all played by X and Fourplay, of course. (Not X and Fourplay). The song is a homage to the energy and (sonic) violence of rock and is itself a fair example of those things in action. But though it stomps along on its start-stop rhythm, that same rhythm seems like the build-up for a take-off that doesn’t happen. Meat and potatoes rock from a bar band can be great, but this song isn’t as fun as the mindless fun (“The singer’s out of his fuckin’ brain”) it celebrates. The rhythm’s unmistakable, and there’s a riff I can point out, but neither swings and veers and lurches with the abandon of, say, Hound Dog Taylor’s “Walkin’ the Ceiling” which, with no lyrics at all except “Ha ha!” and “All right, all right!”, does a better job of embodying the bar-band thrill that this song, by comparison, only talks about.
If, 25 years down the road, the rage here still feels more real than even on an early Jackson number like “Sunday Papers”, I still have to give Jackson the edge for a hooky pop tune like “Is She Really Going Out With Him”. Or, mid-period, for the ironic cheater’s excuse he gives on “Biology”. Neither X nor Jackson has that much to say, nor are they as much fun as one might imagine. Given that, I’ll marginally take sleek craft over unfocused feeling, hooky and tuneful background music over music that initially demands attention but then doesn’t explain why one should give it.