Twenty-five years after the birth of punk, even after years of commodification (from car commercials - The Buzzcocks! - to MTV's happy-go-lucky frat-punk - Blink 182, etc.), there's still no denying the up-from-the gutter energy corralled by countless upstart bands and thrashed back out to late-seventies audiences who were sick of the stadium-groupie-limo morass that rock had become. More so than in England, punk pioneers in late-seventies America were fated to careers of struggle and frustration; the music never broke through to the mainstream until, well, some would say never, but not until the early nineties at least. The list of unjustly-forgotten and/or eternally-overlooked bands from the era is long, but begins in Los Angeles (1980) with X.
The first wave of yet another career-spanning reissue-remaster series from Rhino, Los Angeles, Wild Gift (1981) and Under The Big Black Sun (1982) cover the Hollywood quartet's rise, beginning with their raw debut single "Adult Books/We're Desperate" (bonus tracks on Los Angeles and Wild Gift, respectively). Blazing out of LA's burgeoning, chaotic punk scene, Los Angeles was a remarkably assured indie-label debut, eloquently expressing the anger, despair, and lust for kicks of a growing outsider subculture stuck in the opulent land of Fleetwood Mac and Aaron Spelling. X's harsh, yet syncopated music set the template for John Doe and Exene Cervenka's lyrics, the noir quality of which made rock critics everywhere bone up on Chandler and Bukowski for comparisons. The musicianship of bassist Doe, guitar god Billy Zoom, and drummer D.J. Bonebrake set X apart from most of its Cali-punk brethren; listening again years later, it almost sounds as if Elvis' fifties backing band got amped up on speed and reconvened on the Sunset Strip to show the spiky-haired cretins how to swing (with bohemian priestess Exene serving as an appropriately unsettling, caterwauling anti-King).
Wild Gift found X laying down more of their blistering early material ("Back 2 The Base" and "Beyond and Back," the latter also included in a version from Penelope Spheeris' classic punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization ) but also branching out musically, with the danceable raver "In This House That I Call Home" and more subdued ballads such as "Some Other Time" and "White Girl." Wild Gift proved that X was much more than a one-dimensional punk rock act, and the major-label jump to Under The Big Black Sun saw the band expanding its lyrical approach as well as its sound. Much was made throughout X's career, by supporters as well as the band itself, about their lack of commercial acceptance, but in retrospect X was a classic cult band; you had to listen to them several times before falling under their spell. After all, gripping songs about adultery ("Riding With Mary"), alcoholism ("The Have Nots"), death ("Come Back To Me") and all three ("Under The Big Black Sun") were, are and will always be anathema to American Top 40. No matter. On each disc, song-by-song recollections from John and Exene and liner notes by longtime chronicler and compatriot Kristine McKenna place X's "unheard music" in proper context - as one of the few bright lights during a mostly dismal period in American popular music, and ultimately as some prime, passionate, enduring rock and roll. -Patrick Reed
Live at Jittery Joe's
I was a complete doubter. I thought that without a backing band, Jeff Mangum wouldn't be as effectively good. This has been a somewhat disappointing year for Neutral Milk Hotel fans; the recently re-released EP Everything Is only features two lackluster non-album tracks from the On Avery Island era and the rest is nonsensical noise. At least this new live record is far from a letdown.
Recorded intimately sometime between 1996 and 1998, Live at Jittery Joe's is just Mangum, his guitar, and a few close friends in an Athens, Georgia cafe. Believe it or not, Neutral Milk Hotel songs sound great stripped of all their elements. The emphasis here is on his songwriting abilities and his eerie, lilting voice.
There's no track listing, but the record features many cuts from 1996's On Avery Island as well as 1998's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. There are also a few songs that didn't make it on either record, and a charming cover of Phil Spector's "I Love How You Love Me."
Curious fans may wonder if this signifies the end of Neutral Milk Hotel. According to their official website, a two-volume set of early self-released cassette material, live performances, and unreleased recordings will eventually come out on the elusive Orange Twin record label. In addition, Mangum is currently working a collection of short stories, and wants to make a movie about snails. -Claire Buxton