X - See How We Are (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review


See How We Are (1987)


It's crazy how productive some bands were in the `80s. The Cure and the Smiths shat out records annually with a pretty good batting average. Same goes for the L.A. punks in X, who put out six albums in seven years, five of which are great. 1985's Ain't Love Grand!, however, is not great. It sucks. You know how sometimes artists put out divisive records, like Against Me!'s New Wave or Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks or Weezer's Pinkerton or like three-fourths of Neil Young's back catalogue, where people can't agree if they're genius or bullshit?

Ain't Love Grand! is not that kind of an album. It is unquestionably shitty.

Even the band straight up hates it. Of the six X re-releases, Ain't Love Grand! is the only one with liner notes that essentially state that you wasted your money. Tons of factors contributed, like touring burnout and artistic differences. The biggest reason why it sucked the suckiest suck to ever suck a sucky suck, though, was Master of Puppets sound engineer Michael Wagener. Wagener made a lot of bank handling metal albums in the `80s, so when X came to him looking for a hit record, they got bad `80s metal production. Frontwoman Exene Cervenka was virtually removed from the record thanks to Wagener's borderline sexist attitude towards her lyrics and singing style. You know that "metal drums" sound that everybody used back in the day? That heavy/thudding yet artificial snare/bass sound that sounds like it was made on a keyboard? Yeah, that's what Ain't Love Grand! sounded like. Dokken and Poison blow, and so does Ain't Love Grand!.

The one good thing about Ain't Love Grand!, though, is that it was so terrible that it made the band's final album (before the numerous reunions, anyway), See How We Are, sound even better. I bought my X albums chronologically, so I can say I felt the same emotions as X's original fans in the `80s did. I was relieved to hear a return to the rockabilly sound. Granted, Ain't Love Grand! led to founding guitarist Billy Zoom's temporary departure, but his replacements, Dave Alvin and Tony Gilkyson, fill in admirably. Less raw than Los Angeles, the band's evolution into a true American roots band was clear here. John Doe and Cervenka are American poets with way more eloquence than the average punk and enough sense to keep it all tightly packaged. Still dealing with urban decay, romance, and political rambling, X's last stand was a good one.

Opening number "I'm Lost" has more in common with the Blasters and Stray Cats than with Los Angeles, which is to say, its rockabilly stance borders on country rock at times. Track two, "You," briefly recalls Bruce Springsteen circa-Born in the U.S.A., if only for its synths. It's easily one of the poppiest songs Cervenka has ever written -- she even opts for traditional singing over her trademark ghostly wail thing. And that's only bad if you're more into punk aesthetics than actual songwriting. Indeed, listening to See How We Are, it feels as if this shouldn't have been a swan song, but the band's real bid for commercial appeal instead of Ain't Love Grand!.

The record's pop sheen can only cover up so much, though. There's still a hint of X's desperation present, perhaps best displayed on the title track. "See How We Are" extols the pains of prison, inner city violence and brand name saturation ("Now there are seven kinds of Coke / 500 kinds of cigarettes / This freedom of choice in the USA drives everybody crazy") in under four minutes. A ballad among rockers, it's mournful, it's pointed and it's especially moving. The Rhino re-release includes a rough-sounding demo among the bonus tracks (also worth noting is a pretty great take on Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited"), and it's just as amazing. See How We Are might still not sit well with some punks who like their guitars muddy and their vocals buried in the mix, but it's a solid rockabilly record that just so happened to have a decent recording budget. If nothing else, this was a good way to end it.

Of course, the band reunited to record 1993's hey Zeus!, again to promote 1997's Beyond and Back: The X Anthology, and yet again to tour sporadically during this, our new millennium.