X: Wild Gift

MAY 1981 (31 YEARS AGO)
X: Wild Gift is released.
# Allmusic 5/5 stars
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Wild Gift is the second album by X, released in May 1981. It was very well received critically, and was voted #2 for the year in The Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. In 2003, the album was ranked number 334 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
On X’s sophomore effort, 1981’s Wild Gift, the quartet made a conscious effort to solidify their songwriting and sound. While some of the jagged edges have been smoothed out, compared to their rough-and-ready debut, Los Angeles, there is still plenty of punk rock energy and attitude to go around. Once again, former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek is on board as producer, and the results are just as impressive. The obvious standout is “White Girl,” a punk pop ditty that foreshadowed such later bands as the Pixies and Nirvana, and would have been a smash hit in a perfect world. Also included are such subsequent X standards as “We’re Desperate,” “In This House That I Call Home,” and the rockabilly rocker “Beyond and Back” (which would later serve as a title track for a double-disc 1997 anthology of the band). Wild Gift was remastered and reissued in 2001 by Rhino Records, with seven bonus tracks.
Today, five years after the idea was new, bands identifying themselves with punk rock are generally redundant or effete. Those in the first category see the energy of punk’s brief glory days as an accessible reservoir, as if systematic, pugnacious primitivism were both self-renewing and its own excuse. Groups in the second category — i.e., the bulk of commercial New Wavers — treat the Sex Pistols as remote, albeit venerated, ancestors whose names are mentioned for legitimacy and luck, but the details of whose histories are dimly recalled. X are something else again: for them, punk is the house they matter-of-factly call home. Indeed, they may be the only band around that can use the word without it sounding like comelately hubris or bittersweet humor.
That’s partly because X understand the contradictions of being committed to a subculture that’s already choked with unacknowledged restrictions. In the year since their debut LP, Los Angeles, was released (selling an extraordinary 60,000-plus copies for tiny Slash Records), X have started to suffer a backlash from L.A. punk-scene purists who view the group’s increasing instrumental accomplishment, musical range and national following with suspicion. This conflict certainly adds to the conviction and moral force of Wild Gift, the best album by an American band this year and the finest American punk album ever.
Los Angeles’ power — and flaws — came from the uneasy question of where X’s sensibility diverged from the graphic landscape of horrors it portrayed. Full of ritual violence and precipice-testing, the group’s vest-pocket surrealism conveyed as much “me too!” as mea culpa. On Wild Gift, X are constantly defining themselves in relation to communities — not just the constricting L.A. music establishment that sent them reeling into rebellion in the first place, but the bile-filled, drug-soaked and self-destructive scene they’re in yet not entirely of — hammering out distinctions, solutions and ethical stances with the same high-speed, frenzied accuracy drummer Don Bonebrake uses on his kit.
Wild Gift’s sound, too, is cleaner, surer and closer to the brindled, lurching passion that X project onstage. Freed from the distracting keyboards producer Ray Manzarek folded into Los Angeles, guitarist Billy Zoom becomes the music’s vital center, coolly unleashing succinct, revelatory guitar lines reclaimed from Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and every junk guitarist worthy of the name. Zoom gives each note the fresh gleam of newly minted silver. The few guitar overdubs work as emphasis, not embellishment.
Above the clattering drive of the music, John Doe and Exene fling out their voices, his ragged and muscular, hers a high-pitched, petulant yowl. These voices clutch and stagger like partners in a three-legged race, pulling together even as they threaten to pull apart. When they blend, it’s in a keening, exultant near-unison, with the edgy, archaic feel of Appalachian and other rural musics. The comparison isn’t so far out. The pair have spoken in interviews about having “traditional values,” which means that they’ve thought beyond the seductive immediacies of trendy nihilism in order to tackle the problems of what comes afterward — problems that most punk bands either belittle or ignore. Members of a marginal and, in some ways, a pioneer society, they’re looking past subsistence for a sense of dignity and honor. “We’re desperate/Get used to it,” they sing in an utterly believable chronicle of chaos. Then they move on to more important things, like how to make love and ethics and art work against a backdrop of daily disaster.
Most important, Wild Gift is a punk romance, complete with temptations, estrangements and reunions. John Doe and Exene are married, and their unfashionable monogamy becomes a metaphor for all the precarious foundations they’ve established, as well as a leap of faith that can redeem all of their efforts. Which doesn’t mean the going is easy. Because the idea of commitment takes on such importance when that commitment is the sole island in a sea of chaos, the infidelities that gnaw and rankle are mental ones. The thwarted temptations of “White Girl” — its untidy, unraveling, Mamas-and-the-Papas harmonies a yearning parody of latter-day California romanticism — are as harrowing as the consequences of actual betrayal. In “When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch,” the partner wracked by jealousy is the one who watches the other slip into unconsciousness and flirt with God-knows-what fantasies of “kissing any little child/Who comes along.”
Without sacrificing the biting realism that characterized Los Angeles, X reestablish romance and fidelity as abstractions larger than the individual, as concepts that carry authority and demand response, whether abject or rebellious. In the same way, the group’s Stations-of-the-Cross symbolism in “Universal Corner” reasserts the literary and emotional weight of Christian myth. Like Billy Zoom with his deft quotations, John Doe and Exene tap into the powerful iconography around them, all the while recognizing its dangers. “Back 2 the Base” is a wildly funny portrait of a soldier raving about Elvis Presley, whose life is obviously more real to him than his own (“I’m the king of rock ‘n’ roll/If you don’t like it you can lump it”). Yet the song has the sad ring of truth. Exene and Doe know they could be on either side of the equation, destroyed by comparison with cultural icons or by becoming them.
“Year 1,” Wild Gift’s finale, isn’t the LP’s best cut, or its deepest, but it’s where everything momentarily comes together: the untrendy hopefulness and hard-bitten realities, the artistic debts and the toll they take. The number’s not just a piece of charming utopianism but an explicit musical refutation of the knee-jerk, nothing-before-the-Sex-Pistols purism of many younger L.A. punks. The lyrics of “Year 1” evoke a new, born-from-the-flames generation, sandblasted clean and starting over from ground zero with “No desperate living class/No Roman Catholic mass/No magazines no TV/No RCA no GE.” Yet the tune’s a collection of bright fragments from the past: guitar lines wrenched neatly from Eddie Cochran (“C’mon Everybody”) and Chuck Berry (“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”), plus beach-party handclaps and joyful noise. “Year 1” is a compact history of California, home of fad revelation and abortive self-discovery, and, as such, takes its own exultant dawn-worshiping with a grain of salt. X are too worldly and worn to believe in a born-again future — for music, love or society — that doesn’t involve making an uneasy peace with the past. Their triumph on Wild Gift is that they’re also too wise to begrudge the effort.
~ DEBRA RAE COHEN (August 20, 1981)
All tracks written by John Doe and Exene Cervenka.
Side one
“The Once Over Twice” – 2:31
“We’re Desperate” – 2:00
“Adult Books” – 3:19
“Universal Corner” – 4:33
“I’m Coming Over” – 1:14
“It’s Who You Know” – 2:17
Side two
“In This House That I Call Home” – 3:34
“Some Other Time” – 2:17
“White Girl” – 3:27
“Beyond and Back” – 2:49
“Back 2 the Base” – 1:33
“When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch” – 1:57
“Year 1” – 1:18
Bonus tracks (2001 reissue)
“Beyond and Back” (Live) – 2:48
“Blue Spark” (Demo) – 2:04
“We’re Desperate” (Single version) – 2:01
“Back 2 the Base” (Live) – 1:40
“Heater” (Rehearsal) (Doe) – 2:32
“White Girl” (Single mix) – 3:29
“The Once Over Twice” (Unissued single mix) – 2:35


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