[10 March 2011]
...but confound it all, it has to be mentioned! Of course, Exene Cervenka was a member of legendary punk band X, quite possibly the best punk band to ever come out of Los Angeles. Still touring, they called recording quits in the early ‘90s after transforming themselves into a rock band (Ain’t Love Grand) then an Americana band (See How We Are) and finally some sort of strange alternative rock concoction (Hey Zeus!). Exene released some solo albums, folky affairs, and then founded, in recent years, punk throwbacks Auntie Christ and the Original Sinners. She has also been a member of the neo-traditionalist country supergroup the Knitters.
I was never crazy about her previous solo work—Auntie Christ or the Original Sinners—(check out the Knitters if you haven’t), so the brilliantly titled The Excitement of Maybe is a real treat, showcasing Exene at a new songwriting and lyrical peak. It’s a rather solid album, and had a few missteps been excised, it could have been quite excellent. That is, however, what that “FF” button is for.
Starting strong with “Already in Love”, simultaneously sad and hopeful (that titular maybe?), Exene uses the instrumentation and production to create a tangible atmosphere, something along the lines of early Dave Alvin, or Tom Waits tracks like “Hold On” and “Time”. “Brand New Memory” finds her in her X bandmate/former husband John Doe’s territory (she would later marry and divorce Viggo Mortensen): folk-inspired rock where the melody is unfortunately on vacation. As my apprehension grew so early, I was relieved that she makes up for it with her strongest new track, “Alone In Arizona”, which comes out like an appropriately southwestern Fleetwood Mac with guitar noodling a la Tom Verlaine—a beautiful and unique package.
“Falling”, “I Wish It Would Stop Raining”, and “Turning With the World” are a trio of strong tunes that find Exene discovering a new sense of melody: excellent, engaging melodies, whether they’re set in Calexico territory or presented in the form of a quick pop ditty. “Dirty Snow” blankets us in a hushed desert feel and is another excellent composition, proving Exene can so totally outdo the overrated Kathleen Edwards and Lucinda Williams.
Unfortunately, there are some bad thoughts around the corner. “I’ll Admit It Now” is a failed attempt at horn-filled country-soul; “Long Time Ago” doesn’t fall far from Springsteen but lacks his seemingly endless supply of hooks and energy, and “Someday I’ll Forget” is killed by the vocals. Exene has never been a very strong vocalist, making up for it with poetic lyrics and creativity, but here she not only struggles with singing but employs rather awkward phrasing. Even still, there are no disasters present.
The Excitement of Maybe isn’t a return to form—because there’s never really been a form to return to throughout all her musical incarnations. It’s simply a strong, often gorgeous album by one of the most intriguing figures in the last few decades of rock music.