By Andy Nystrom. Originally posted on There’s Something Hard in There.
As droplets of rain plunked down upon my car’s windshield and the dreary sky became further shrouded in darkness, I waited and wondered what another pandemic day would toss my way.
On this April morning, nearing 11 a.m., the eatery would soon unlock its doors so myself and the one other customer I spied in the parking lot could soft-step it up to the entrance, peek in to make sure all was safe and secure our to-go orders.
I reached for the door handle, but held back as the other guy carefully navigated the puddled lot and headed for the restaurant’s door.
I’ll wait a bit, I thought, and that gave me time to scroll through my Facebook feed again, hoping to notice something that would brighten the day. And then came the message that X had just sent its new album Alphabetland into the internet society via Fat Possum Records on its Bandcamp page.
While these quarantine days all seem to bleed together and the numerals on the calendar all appear washed out and unrecognizable, April 22, 2020 will be remembered in fans’ minds as the day X returned to the music world with a fucking bang.
New tunes are always crucial, but this 10-song stormer (complemented by an Exene Cervenka spoken-word piece) especially hit the spot at the right time. It was released four days shy of the exact 40-year anniversary of when X’s watershed debut album, Los Angeles, hit the stores.
“I felt we had something important,” drummer/percussionist DJ Bonebrake told us in an email interview. “I thought we had an album that was as good as anything we had ever recorded. And, because Rob Schnapf was producing, we had our best sounding recording to date.”
Original members Bonebrake, Cervenka (vocals), John Doe (bass and vocals) and Billy Zoom (guitar/saxophone/piano) deliver the songs with vivacity in typical X fashion and truly harken back to the band’s early years. The majority of the tunes whip by quickly, packing the needed punch and lyrical insight into the minuscule time frame.
“We wanted to be able to play the new songs live, so we rehearsed the songs as if they were live songs not studio songs,” Bonebrake said of the strategy for X’s first new album since 1993’s hey Zeus!
“It took so long to get around to recording a new record because the time wasn’t right until now,” he said. “What changed? Fat Possum Records, the company that recently reissued our first four records, said they would be interested in releasing new material by the band. That set the wheels in motion.”
Bonebrake noted that X gathered at Mant Sound in Glassell Park, Calif., for a test recording session in January of 2019 — four old songs and one new one — to see how the original members would fare in the studio together for the first time since they knocked out 1985’s “Ain’t Love Grand.”
“It went well, so John and Exene started writing songs for the next session, which didn’t happen for another year because of our touring schedule and other delays,” Bonebrake said. “So, in January of 2020 we recorded six new songs at Sunset Sound in Hollywood. Later, Exene recorded her spoken-word piece, ‘All the Time in the World,’ at Rob Schnapf’s studio, which features Billy Zoom on piano and Robby Krieger from the Doors on slide guitar. Eight new songs and three old songs (one didn’t make it!). The older songs are on the album because they sound good and they work.”
“Water & Wine” contains some especially impactful lyrics: The divine that defines us/ The evil that divides us/ There’s a heaven & a hell/ And there’s an, “oh well”/ Who gets passed to head of the line/ Who gets water & who gets wine/ There’s a heaven and there’s a never/ There’s no tomorrow only forever.
X revisited some of its earliest songs, “Delta 88 Nightmare” and “Cyrano deBerger’s Back,” over the last two years, first etching them on a 2019 single and then including the pair on “Alphabetland,” which will have a physical release date of Aug. 22.
The Doors connection also continues four decades down the road from when the late Ray Manzarek produced “Los Angeles” and played organ on three songs and synthesizer on one. A cover of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” also found its way onto the album’s final track listing. A demo of “Delta” and a rehearsal of “Cyrano” were both included as bonus tracks on the “Los Angeles” 2001 CD reissue, and a proper recording of “Cyrano” closes out 1987’s “See How We Are.”
So as the past and present superbly collide in the X world, Bonebrake couldn’t be more satisfied with how the band is operating these days.
“What keeps the band rolling is commitment to the music and the need to make a living.
We all get along fine. We’re like brothers and sisters. We disagree about some things but we’re all in agreement about making good music,” he said. “Being in X allows me to play music! That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
It’s a musical trifecta that is equal parts fun, a catharsis and a challenge for Bonebrake. “Los Angeles” and “Alphabetland” are certainly sturdy LP bookends to X’s 43-year career, which has seen them experience nearly everything under the big black sun from A to Z.
“I’m proud of everything we’ve done. Some records are are better than others, some shows were better than others, but overall I think our percentage is pretty good,” Bonebrake said. “We’ve all had our lows personally and artistically but I’d rather think about the highs. I think the string of albums at the beginning of our career were definitely in the high-point category. Also, I think our live shows over the years, although always inspired and intense, have improved. I think we’re better now than we were 40 years ago.”
Bonebrake discussed the album’s title:
“We named the album ‘Alphabetland’ because during rehearsal, Billy Zoom misheard the words alphabet mine as alphabet land. The song was originally called ‘Mercury,’ but Billy kept calling it ‘Alphabetland.’ After a while, it stuck as the title of the song and ultimately as the name of the album.”
Here’s part of the lyrics from the leadoff track to put Bonebrake’s comment into perspective:
Tearing up the sidewalk
pouring wet cement
erasing your initials
Molten river riding high
fever in the shine
No more words for you
alphabet mine, alphabet mine, alphabet mine