About a year ago, Rhino Records, a label that specializes in keeping ignored and overlooked rock and roll music in print, started reissuing albums recorded by X, one of the L.A. club scene’s greatest bands. Leftist, raucous, and poetic, the country-punk sound that distinguished the group never caught on nationally, but, like the Velvet Underground, their violent beauty has influenced dozens of songwriters, including contemporary giants like Frank Black, David Lowery, and Beck. A remastered and expanded edition of X’s most accessible album — More Fun in the New World — became available last May.
Originally released in 1983, the band’s fourth full-length replaces the splintery shrillness of earlier records like Los Angeles, Wild Gift and Under the Big Black Sun with tight playing and lush melodies. On the opening track “The New World”, for instance, Billy Zoom’s chugging guitar and D.J. Bonebrake’s high-speed sticks blend together like scotch and soda water as Exene Cervenka and John Doe’s tender-homely voices cry: “Honest to goodness / The bars were open this morning / They must’ve been voting for the president or something”. Bittersweet lyrics and fat melodies also drive “Poor Little Girl”, “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts”, and “Hot House”. “Drunk in my Past”, the record’s sweetest song, is also the darkest. Rising above the roaring music, Exene — sounding like a strung-out Loretta Lynn — moans, “It’s the drunk in my past / Shuffling by like a train / Sounds on its track / Like a ride that don’t last”. Similarly, sad topics — like broken hearts and war — also appear, and each time they do, the band steps up and wraps them in perfumed swaddling, a technique that makes these personal and public disasters unusually endearing.
Every song isn’t pretty, however. X, after all, was a product of the punk movement that exploded belatedly in Los Angeles in the late-’70s, and it catered to the same crowds that coagulated around noisy outfits like the Circle Jerks, the Germs, Flipper, and Black Flag. And on tracks like “Devil Doll”, “Make the Music Go Bang”, and “Painting the Town Blue”, the band leaves the melodies in the parking lot and kicks out the jams, thrashing their instruments and screaming angry lyrics like, “‘You look funny when you cry’ were / His last words; before he laughed / And said goodbye / She flipped a finger”.
Not enough can be said about the dividends wrought by remastering these songs. On earlier editions of the album, the music always sounded a little fuzzy, as if it’d been recorded live on equipment that had a hard time keeping the sounds of the instruments separated. But now, with a clean mix, several previously dulled or buried aspects reveal themselves. For instance on “True Love Part 2”, (the band’s homage to Curtis Mayfield), Doe’s bass thumps so loudly, the song sounds a lot more like disco than it used to, and the hubcaps Bonebrake hurls to the floor at the end of “I See Red” feel like they’re coming at you in 3-D. The bonus tracks that conclude the new edition, however, are flat, rough and unfinished, like outtakes from an early rehearsal. No doubt a come-on to longtime fans, encouraging them to replace their old disc with this new one, they may have been better off left in the vaults (or under the rug). But these tacked on tracks are a problem of surplus, and they can’t mute the impact of the brilliance which precedes them.
With lines of verse to match Valery and Baudelaire, a parade of amped-out power chords and John and Exene’s unsettling vocal harmonies, More Fun in the New World never had a chance of scoring mainstream success in its time. Twenty years later, Rhino’s efforts aren’t likely to generate widespread recognition or strong sales, either. The brave new world we live in probably isn’t — and may never be — brave or new enough to warm up to X.
What a shame.