Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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  • Los Angeles [Slash, 1980] A-
  • Wild Gift [Slash, 1981] A+
  • Under the Big Black Sun [Elektra, 1982] A-
  • More Fun in the New World [Elektra, 1983] A-
  • Ain't Love Grand [Elektra, 1985] B
  • See How We Are [Elektra, 1987] B
  • Live at the Whiskey a Go-Go on the Fabulous Sunset Strip [Elektra, 1988] B+
  • Hey Zeus! [Big Life/Mercury, 1993] B-
  • Unclogged [Infidelity, 1995] Dud
  • Beyond and Back: The X Anthology [Elektra, 1997] **
  • The Best: Make the Music Go Bang! [Elektra/Rhino, 2004] ***
  • Live in Los Angeles [Shout! Factory, 2005] *
  • Alphabetland [Fat Possum, 2020] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Los Angeles [Slash, 1980]
From poet-turned-chanteuse Exene to junk-guitar journeyman Billy Zoom, these aren't mohawked NME-reading truants who think Darby Crash is God or the Antichrist. They're sexy thrift-shopping bohos who think Charles Bukowski is Norman Mailer or Henry Miller. This may not be exactly the aura they crave, but combined with some great tunes it enables them to make a smart argument for a desperately stupid scene. Of course, when they're looking for a cover (or a producer), they go to the Doors, prompting L.A. critic Jay Mitchell to observe: "Their death and gloom aura is closer to the Eagles, which is to say it is all Hollywood." But only in L.A. is that an insult, elsewhere the distinction between a city and its industrial hub is more like a clever apercu. A-

Wild Gift [Slash, 1981]
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? A+

Under the Big Black Sun [Elektra, 1982]
John and Exene attribute "The Hungry Wolf"'s rather feral view of marriage, in which lifelong mates roam the urban wastes with dripping jaws, to the Sioux, but I think they got the idea from Ted Nugent: they should check out Farley Mowat, who describes wolves as lifelong mates who live on mice and never fuck around. These are good songs bracingly played, but the words hint at a certain familiar down-and-out romanticism. They do it with more style and concision than Bukowski, Waits, or Rickie Lee Jones. They do it almost as well as Richard Thompson, in fact. But this time it's Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake who are putting the songs over. Best lyric: "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes," written in Tin Pan Alley before any of these young bohemians, Billy included, was born. A-

More Fun in the New World [Elektra, 1983]
Aimed at the no-future generation, X's passionate reconstruction of musical (and marital) tradition is salutory, and this is their most accomplished album. Both the songwriting and Billy Zoom's guitar reach new heights of junk virtuosity, and "Breathless" is a stroke. But they're too complacent in their tumult. Their righteous anti-Brit chauvinism prevents them from seeing that in its way Culture Club, say, is at least as satisfying and generous-spirited as the Big Boys. And their unabashed beatnik identifications not only stinks slightly of retro but misses the point of rock bohemianism, which is that a proudly nonavant band like this ought to risk a little of its precious authenticity in an all-out effort to make converts. A-

Ain't Love Grand [Elektra, 1985]
After five years of wresting art from commerce and/or vice versa, John and Exene try to have it both ways. Satisfying their bohemian urges with the neofolk Knitters on the art label Slash, they appease their major mentors and keep Billy in the band by taking X to the same producer as Christian heavy metal boys Stryper. Only just as you'd figure, Michael Wagener can't make John and Exene (or even Billy) sound commercial enough to convert anyone. On the first side he has trouble making them sound like anything at all. B

See How We Are [Elektra, 1987]
Even during the first four songs, when the sustained detail of the writing--with a boost from Dave Alvin's tormented yet unembittered "4th of July"--makes it seems they'll fight for every inch, you miss Billy Zoom's syncretic junk: fine though he is, Tony Gilkyson is too neoclassy for these convinced vulgarians. Then the material devolves into complaints, throwaways, wasted stanzas, and utter clinkers. B

Live at the Whiskey a Go-Go on the Fabulous Sunset Strip [Elektra, 1988]
Twenty-four titles, the half dozen new ones less than essential, and as Tony Gilkyson zips through 16 songs made flesh by Billy Zoom you begin to wonder whether the guitarist was the secret of the band after all. Maybe it was just the guitar. B+

Hey Zeus! [Big Life/Mercury, 1993]
Stripped of the vicious tensions that made them great--between good and evil, John and Exene, Billy Zoom and Skunk Baxter--they return as the reason young bohos are afraid to grow up. This isn't folk-rock in disguise; Tony Gilkyson's hooks evoke a machine shop, not a barn raising. But they leave going 120 to a bad old black-and-white--even with their seat belts on, the kids in the back would get hurt real bad in a crash. And save hostility for the warmongers--ensconced in separate but functional marriages, John and Exene have nothing to fight about anymore. Which in the usual tragic contradiction leaves the emotion so abstract that the songs are tough to grab hold of. Only the spiteful putdowns--Exene's "Everybody," John's "Baby You Lied"--sound like old times. Not to mention new ones. B-

Unclogged [Infidelity, 1995] Dud

Beyond and Back: The X Anthology [Elektra, 1997]
the "mostly unreleased x-cellence" comprises mostly known songs--an honorable, listenable live/demo/etc. fans-only collectorama ("The World's a Mess/It's in My Kiss," "How I [Learned My Lesson]") **

The Best: Make the Music Go Bang! [Elektra/Rhino, 2004]
Like so many bands and the occasional couples, they didn't know when to quit ("Adult Books," "In This House That I Call Home"). ***

Live in Los Angeles [Shout! Factory, 2005]
The live album Billy Zoom and their songbook have long deserved ("Johny Hit and Run Paulene," "Beyond & Back"). *

Alphabetland [Fat Possum, 2020]
With Exene a conspiracy theorist, John Doe anonymous, Billy Zoom a "conservative," and D.J. Bonebrake a drummer, who would have guessed that a band that made its last good album in 1983 would add a mature classic to those doomed remnants of a tumultuous marriage on an L.A. punk scene more minimalist and extreme than they were. Yet here it is, one rueful to agonized lookback at their own mortality after another. My favorite of many excellent lyrics begins: "The divine that defines us/The evil that divides us/There's a heaven and a hell/And then there's oh well." But the verbiage wouldn't mean as much if John and Exene weren't caterwauling as wild and gifted as ever--and if Zoom and Bonebrake weren't so committed and undiminished. A-