X
Under The Big Black Sun


4.5
superb

Review

by John Cruz USER (88 Reviews)
January 24th, 2006 | 11 replies | 5,491 views


Release Date: 1982 | Tracklist


9 of 9 thought this review was well written

Having released two album of the year contenders in 1980 and '81 (Los Angeles and Wild Gift, respectively) and finishing at or near the top of almost any "Band Of The Year" poll you can think of, X was on a roll in the early eighties when punk rock was still in it's infancy in mainstream America. Critics darlings to be sure, but also a favorite of the Los Angeles punk scene, X lead the way for West Coast punks not by image, empty posturing, political sloganeering, or wild, contrived behavior. Instead, they came with well written songs with heartfelt poetic lyrics, traditional rock n roll melodies, and rock solid musicianship that not only set them slightly apart from the rest of their punk rock contemporaries, but slightly above as well. Never resented for this fact but rather always respected, X carried the musical and cultural flag for West Coast punk (and in large part American punk in general) and were the band that other bands could point to as a benchmark for punk rock goodness.. And when many said punk was souless, noisy, non-musical, worthless garbage, they were always among the bands fans, critics, and other admirers of the genre could confidently point to and prove the naysayers wrong. Dead wrong. As good as any "classic" rock band that came before and as "punk" as any band from the Sex Pistols to The Clash to the Dead Kennedys, X was a band that had everything going for them. And everything going against them as well, as major labels weren't exactly banging down their door to sign 'em to a deal.

So when Elecktra Records came knocking with a promise to allow X to continue on their own path and make music on their own terms, while being promoted by a major label with the potential to widely distribute their music, X signed on the dotted line without a second thought. A few cried "sellout", but most didn't, giving X the opportunity to put the music first before passing judgement. And it is important to remember that in early eighties America punk was still seen as a musical curiosity to the mainstream masses. A passing trend and oddity. Music for outsiders and losers and rebellious children, perhaps. But not for the sons and daughters of mainstream Mr. and Mrs. Smith. And certainly not for commercial radio. So many punk bands at that time would welcome signing with a major with open arms if only given a chance. Not to play "RockStar" or to get paid, neither one of those things being likely. But simply to have an opportunity to have their music heard by as wide an audience as possible and help blaze a trail for those who might follow. Afterall, if you could play so called "rock n roll" like .38 Special and Journey on the radio, and poppy "new wave" as well, certainly their must be room for something a little more adventurous and daring?

Still, the question remained. With a major label behind them and an opportunity for a wider audience in front of them, would X change the most important part of what made them punk in the first place? Would they tone down the wild vocal harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka? Would they give their sound a slick, polished, and over produced shine? Would they turn away from the gritty tales of urban life and death, and broken hearted lovers that had marked thier first two albums? Would they play it safe and compromise their punk rock spirit? Or might they simply throw in the towel altogether and become Blondie? Would they in fact, as they say, "sellout".

With the release of their third album and major label debut "Under The Big Black Sun" X would answer all those questions as well as a few others with a blast of punk rock nirvana as daring, bold, and committed as has ever been put to record. With former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek once again at the helm for producing duties and a batch of brand new songs to choose from, they simply moved into a better studio where "things weren't always breaking" in the words of John Doe, and let the tape roll. With all the main instruments tracked live and John and Exene's vocal harmonies recorded on the same mic and at the same time, X would seek to make an album that not only sounded live, but sounded alive. And as Exene would say many years later about the informal recording of the album "John and I inspired each other. That's way more important then chord changes. Anyone can write a fucking chord change". And the resulting album is nothing less then a near masterpeice for the punk rock ages.

Things get off to a quick start with 'The Hungry Wolf", a tale of desperate lovers leading a desperate and predetorry life admist the unassuming masses of the City Of Angels. Inspired partly by a short lived after hours social club called "The Wolves", which John Doe would later describe as "a motorcycle club without the motorcycles", it gets the album started with big beats from drummer D.J. Bonebrakes floor tom, John Doe's solid bass playing, and Billy Zooms precise and razor sharp guitar riffing. With almost every lyric being sung in unison by Doe and Cervenka, the vocal harmonies that had become a trademark of sorts on past albums are clearly intact, and in fact improved. And whatever reservations anyone may of had about X jumping to a major label are quickly put to rest.

After the breakneck speed, living out of cheap, crowded motels song "Motel Room In My Bed" comes the first song that signals this album has a little more on it's mind then what had been standard X fare on their previous two albums. "Riding With Mary" a song about the night Exene's sister Mary died in an auto accident while in route to see X perform at the Whiskey in Los Angeles, is a mid tempo rocker that chronicles the incident with the poetic flair that X had become known for, and features a very nice counter melody played on bass by Doe. Never a lyricist to be too literal (although she does that, too) Exene lets the music do half the talking as she sings "Riding with Mary/Protection to pass/Riding with Mary/Protecting immaculate love", with John harmonizing by her side. The song has the very sound of regret. And wrapping the whole thing up are the striking lyrics sung in a vocal exchange by the two singers "On the dashboard rides a figurine/It's a powerless sweet forgotten thing/So the next time you see a statue of Mary/Remember my sister was in a car". And so the song makes it's connection and then simply fades away.

This theme of death and struggling with faith is something that would weave it's way throughout the entire album, and I suppose it's only fitting that it should, being the experiances of the band since the release of it's first two albums. Having written many of the songs from Los Angeles and Wild Gift at around the same time, the challenge for X this time around was to come up with a fresh batch of songs for their major label debut. And like any artist or songwriter or poet worth anything to anyone, they tore the themes for Under The Big Black Sun straight from their own lives and made something beautiful and meaningful from all the heartache and despair. The album is ripe with songs of death, adultery, absent faith, and regret, but the band never gets bogged down and never fall into cliche. Often times vague and poetic lyrically, but always straight forward and razor sharp musically, when the two peices are put together they make one cohesive whole. And few bands ever sound so complete.

The title track of the album completes the first half of the record, and a more shimmering and propulsive peice of rock n roll you would be hard pressed to find. This song belongs to Exene and Exene alone. As if overflowing with the need to express herself, "Under The Big Black Sun" the song takes everything this album is and packs it into three and half minutes of blistering rock n roll. Sounding not so much a song as an exorcism, this raging slab of punk poetry covers everything from drinking to smoking to death to adultery and beyond. Again, with the lyrics doing half the talking and the music doing the other half, we feel songs like Under The Big Black Sun more then we perfectly understand them. And it's through this feeling that we come to know them. And it's one of the great gifts of this band that they are able to communicate their meaning so clearly through equal parts words and music, yet leave enough space between the lines for the listener to make these songs their own.

The second half of the album gets off to a fast hard start with the almost humorous yet pitifully sad, drunk, married, and dissatisfied song "Because I Do". It's all blazing guitars and standard punk melody while Exene wails about the irony of being married but "forever searching for someone new", and drinking all night and sleeping all day. "What kind of fool am I" she questions, and then immediately answers with "I am the married kind/The kind that said I do/Forever searching for someone new". The song might be a fairly ordinary rant about the pifalls of being married to someone you would perhaps rather not be married to if it weren't for the fact that the respective leaders, co-songwriters, and vocalists of this band weren't the subject of these songs, as they were married at the time. And as if anwering the call on the very next track "Blue Spark", Doe pushes the knife in and gives it a twist with the lyric "Thousands of lights/Thousands of people/She's forgotten him for the bodies around her". And so it goes in the land of punk rock matrimony.

After the latin flavored cover "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes", cautionary tale "Real Child Of Hell", and uptempo man trouble punk of "How I Learned My Lesson", the album closes with the rootsy rock tune "The Have Nots". An ode to working class drinking and the bars it's often done in, it's an ass shaker of a song and one of the best in the entire X catalogue. Catchy, infectious, and as accessable as anything on rock radio at the time or even now, it put's the songwriting skills of John Doe and Exene Cervenka on full display and takes us on a fun, booze filled ride that is most welcome after the trials and tribulations that have come before.

The sad heart of this album can be found several songs before this, though, in the lonely words and music of "Come Back To Me". As if realizing sometimes twisting words and poetic license just won't get the job done, this sorrowful, plaintive sad goodbye to Exene's dead sister is as literal a song as X has ever written. As the band plays a bluesy style slow burn R&B and guitarist Billy Zoom adds a mournful saxaphone, Exene sings of longing and love for her dead sister and the memories left behind with those who still live. "Please please/Come back to me/I cry and talk to you through the bathroom wall/Oh please come back to me" is her simple unanswered plea. And it's just about as much heartbreak as has ever been fit into one song.

Under The Big Black Sun would peak at #76 on the Billboard chart and go no higher, while far lesser bands and far lesser albums would pass it by without even giving it a glancing look. It would not blaze any trails for punk rock entering the mainstream. It would not kick down any doors that locked American punk rock out of mainstream radio. Which at the time as it turns out was a good thing afterall. Because it's far too good to be considered alongside the garbage that ruled radio and the mainstrem at the time, and in many ways still is. Rock n Roll like this isn't easy to come by. And records like Under The Big Black Sun don't come along very often. But when they do it's important that those who care sit up and take notice. Because this is the kind of music that gives you something you won't find anywhere else. It changes you somehow, although you can't say exactly how. It is uncompromised, undiminished, and unyeilding in it's emotional impact and artistic statement. And that is worth more then any shallow hit record or watered down million seller could ever be.



Recent reviews by this author
Big Country The CrossingVan Halen Fair Warning
U2 No Line on the HorizonBruce Springsteen Magic
The Smashing Pumpkins ZeitgeistBon Jovi Lost Highway
user ratings (42)
Chart.
3.9
excellent

Comments:Add a Comment 
JohnXDoesn't
January 24th 2006



1267 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

My latest review. Hope you all enjoy it.

Pizza
January 24th 2006



687 Comments


great review. i have to get this soon

JohnXDoesn't
January 24th 2006



1267 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Thanks. Excuse the typos. I'm still cleaning it up :p

DesolationRow
January 24th 2006



833 Comments


I was actually thinking of reviewing this, but I'm glad you did it instead. What a great review, man. You know your shizah. Very detailed. I'm very happy that you wrote such a great review for a great, overlooked album in the X catalog. Hungry Wolf shows how well John Doe could play a weird bassline and sing at the same time. I must vote for you. Great review.

JohnXDoesn't
January 24th 2006



1267 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Thank you, Entwistle. That's a fine compliment. I think I'm done cleaning it up now, but I'm gonna give it another look....

Zebra
Moderator
January 24th 2006



2647 Comments


Great review, it was well written but once again, I think your reviews are a bit too lengthy.
My dad loves this band but I have never bothered listening to them. I think now is the name considering you gave this a 4.5/5.

JohnXDoesn't
January 24th 2006



1267 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Thanks Zebra. I actually like the length of this one. It's not as long as the one I did for Tunnel of Love and I felt no need to edit it down. The Tunnel of Love review I feel didn't supply enough useful information to justify it's length. It's a bit gratuitous. This one I think feels just about right. And it really isn't nearly as long. Thanks once again.This Message Edited On 01.24.06

Hatshepsut
January 24th 2006



1997 Comments


Good stuff man, I don't mind length. I have time and I prefer a nice, long, informative and detailed review over a short and crappy review.

Rudd13
January 24th 2006



952 Comments


I've heard the title track off this. It was good stuff. Can't say much about the rest of the album though. Great work, although I must admit, I slightly skimmed...
This Message Edited On 01.24.06

Music Nerd
March 1st 2006



95 Comments


I've got to check out this album, amazing review. I look up to you because you're reviews do show that you put hardwork into them and did not just half-ass it. Good music taste too.

porch
October 9th 2011



8450 Comments


listened to their first 3 albums today



You have to be logged in to post a comment. Login | Create a Profile





FAQ // STAFF & CONTRIBUTORS // SITE FORUM // CONTACT US

Bands: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


Site Copyright 2005-2013 Sputnikmusic.com
All Album Reviews Displayed With Permission of Authors | Privacy Policy