X are so obsessed with their home base that they've named their debut album Los Angeles. They're also so ambivalent about their obsession that the title tune depicts an impoverished woman's desperate attempt to leave the place. Midway through the song, her escape turns surreal: "Flying over the dateline/Her hands turn red," the image smashing against the side of a speeding guitar riff, cracking it in half.
In other words, X are the band that denies all the "El Lay" clichés. There's nothing laid-back or singer/songwriterly about this quartet. Instead, the compositions of lead singer Exene Cervenka and bassist John Doe lay bare the terrific resentment that radical young musicians can feel living in a stronghold of music-biz conservatism. "We're locked out of the public eye," the group drones at one point, but the mixed metaphor isn't self-pitying. Indeed, it's X's way of explaining where they get the anger and inspiration to create their fierce postpunk rock & roll.
X have already perfected a style that achieves jolting effects through enormously compressed, elliptical imagery held together by succinct, brutally played guitar and drum riffs. Such a strategy poetry plus powerunites the band with influences from opposite coasts: the Velvet Underground and the Doors. Exene (like an Andy Warhol superstar, she goes by her first name) knows Lou Reed's trick of making the voice flat so that it suffuses all assertions with a provokingly earnest irony. And just as the Doors swathed Jim Morrison's quivering pronouncements in billowing sheets of multicolored music, so does X offer dramatic, rock-savvy contrasts to Exene's symbolist spiels.
Los Angeles was produced by an influence ex-Door Ray Manzarek and he keeps X's structural tensions prominent. The most thrilling of these is the way the profound distrust and despair of the lyrics are pulled back from easy nihilism by lead guitarist Billy Zoom, who interpolates zingy rockabilly riffs and rethought garage-band gestures into the group's phantasmagoric scenarios.
Heroin is the subject of a lot of this record. Once you experience the remorseless description of tying off in "Sugarlight," its odd, glancing images never leave you. "Johny Hit and Run Paulene" is one of the scariest yet exhilarating songs I've ever heard about a drug-sex power struggle. Its opening is wrenching and funny ("He bought a sterilized hypo/To shoot a sex machine drug"), its conclusion desolating: "She wasn't what you'd call living, really/But she was still awake."
There are moments on Los Angeles that are both melodramatic ("Nausea" can't help but collapse under its overwrought descriptions) and worrisome. For instance, it's troubling to ponder how much X identify with the woman in the title track who's "Started to hate every nigger and Jew/...that gave her lotta shit."
Nonetheless, Los Angeles is a powerful, upsetting work that concludes with a confrontation of the band's own rampaging bitterness and confusion. In "The World's a Mess; It's in My Kiss," Exene and John Doe coworkers, wife and husband, outcasts chant the title phrase over and over, and the non sequitur yields a terrifying, moving, urgent puzzle: what's in their kiss? The source of the world's mess? Or its solution? The singers don't knowuncertainty is certainly one of X's themesand neither can we. (RS 323)
(Posted: Aug 7, 1980)