After releasing four seminal punk rock albums in the early '80's which saw the band receive national critical acclaim and landed them on top five album of the year lists just about everywhere, but with almost no radio exposure or commercial success to speak of, X was a band at a crossroads. Under a feeling of obligation from their record company and guitarist Billy Zoom giving the ok (after long being the purist in the band) the group went into the studio and crapped out the miserable Ain't Love Grand album. Something of a failure on all counts, Ain't Love Grand did nothing to garner the band anymore exposure then they had before and after touring behind the record without much success pushing it, Billy Zoom, the groups founding member and steadying force in the band, left X for good, not to return or even make contact for the next 13 years. And while it has been believed by most his departure was on account of the group making the Ain't Love Grand record, and rockabilly/punk purist Zoom was fed up with it, the truth is far more practical.
As it turns out, Ain't Love Grand was actually an idea promoted by Zoom. And when it didn't pan out, he simply abandoned the band. As in he walked off after their last gig not to be seeing again for the next decade and a half. In his own words from a recent interview "I was 38 years old, had $200 in the bank with a family to support, and I had to go off and make a living". Reasonable enough after giving half his life to music and almost a decade in service to X. But with the band still alive and kicking, and owing the record company a couple of more albums, it left the group in a tight spot made even tighter by the corner they had put themselves in with the release of the disastrous Ain't Love Grand record and subsequent tour. Never a band to rest on it's laurels and always a group with a strong vision and focus, X quickly grabbed friend and guitarist Dave Alvin straight from his recent departure of his own band, rockabilly legends The Blasters, to fill the gap until a permanent replacement could be found. Hitting the ground running they launched a tour in '86 , went into the studio, and in mid '87 turned out what would be for all intents and purposes the last studio recording by this band while it was still, well, a full time hard working rock n roll band.
Working with producer Alvin Clark and sporting a brand new guitar player, "See How We Are" get's off to a blistering start with the lead off track "I'm Lost". A desperate tale of losing your way in life and ending up on the skids of Los Angeles, it�s a welcome return to form musically and lyrically for a band that seemed to lose all it's momentum on it's previous outing, and unlike the last album which buried and gutted singers John Doe's and Exene Cervenka's wild vocal harmonies under a sea of glossy sheen, this song put's those vocals right back on track and out front once again. "I'm lost / Sleeping in the alley / I'm Lost / I had some family / I'm lost out here / I'm lo-o-ost" the two wail in unison, and the sound is a full and rich one indeed, the band striking fast and hitting hard behind them. As if to leave no doubt that this is a somewhat different band then what had come before, though, the very next track, the plaintive, lonely in love street song "You" comes rumbling along next with full synthesizers and big sound in tow. Ain't Love Grand, Part #2, perhaps? Fooled once again? No, not quite. "You", with it's synth driven melody and big mid tempo sound simply marks a change in creative direction for the band that would continue throughout the entire album. Whereas on Ain't Love Grand the group sounded forced into not being themselves, on this record X would once again take charge of their music and proclaim themselves something new. Risen from the ashes of thier successes and their failures, this album, remarkably, succeeds on it's own terms independent of anything the band had put out before. No small feat for a group many had come to have fixed expectations of for so long.
After this somewhat interesting start to the album, the record settles in for the long haul with the next cut, the Dave Alvin penned semi-hit single "Fourth Of July", and the tone is set for the rest of the record. An up tempo ode to a broken love and wanting things as they once were, John and Exene are in fine voice here as they go through the motions of the brokenhearted in this rootsy tale of love and forgiveness. "Whatever happened / I apologize / Dry your tears now baby and walk outside / It's the Fourth Of July" they bustle and croon as Alvin lays down twangy guitar licks behind them and drummer DJ Bonebrake keeps a steady beat. It's a breath of fresh air of a song for this band, and it suits these aging, well worn punks just fine.
Charging things up once again for the next two tracks, "In The Time It Takes", a blistering punk 'n twang number that would have been right at home on any of their previous albums if not for the big production, and the raucous straight forward rocker "Anyone Can Fill Your Shoes", and the band shines with good musicianship and aggressive, strong playing throughout. Not as raw, stripped down, or noisy as the band has been previous, producer Alvin Clark manages to lend the group a big, loud, polished, and sometimes bombastic sound without burying the group under the high gloss, slippery slick sheen that was found on the Ain't Love Grand album, allowing the strength of the songwriting and skillful playing of the musicians to be communicated loud and clear. Certainly a change for the band, but definitely not the blundering, compromised, watered down shame that was their previous album by any stretch of the imagination.
Kicking off the second half of the record with the storming, city life cautionary tale "Left And Right", the band then settles back into mid tempo ballad mode for the achingly lovely "When It Rains". Unlike anything recorded previously by this band, the toned down playing on this track and the move away from punk allow the strength of the songwriters to come shining through, and it's as emotionally charged and melancholy a tale as songwriters John Doe and Exene Cervenka had ever conjured up. Always strong traditional songwriters but with the bands punk style oft times covering up that fact, "When It Rains", with guest musician/keyboardist Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers) sitting in for good measure, is a smooth and sorrowful plea for love and understanding between two lovers that is among the best songs the band has ever recorded. Not punk, nor anything special or unique, it's simply a solid song with an eye on tradition and it's feet on the ground. And it works in this setting as well as any X song has ever worked in the past.
Moving along effortlessly through the next two tracks, the almost Go-Go's like lightweight pop/punk of "Holiday Story", and barn burning twangy punk of "Surprise, Surprise" (which finds Exene waxing nostalgic about her drinking career and life spent touring with a rock n roll band), and the album wraps up with the sludgy, bombastic, but charming nonetheless "Cyrano De Berger's Back". But to find the true heart of this record you need to return to the middle portion of it and experience the heartbreaking and knowing title track of "See How We Are". One of the best songs X has ever recorded period, this tune of plain and pained social and personal commentary plays out like some sort of State Of The Union, X style. Having examined their city in song many times before, on "See How We Are" John and Exene take a good hard look at everything around them, including themselves, and find when pointing the finger of blame for societies woes elsewhere, it is more likely then not going to come full circle and point right back at you. "See how we are / Gotta keep bars on all our windows / See how we are / We only sing about it once in every twenty years / See how we are" they sing, while at another point in the song a cynical Doe tells a friend about a new latino love interest "His first name is Homeboy / Isn't that a mexican name / I wouldn't trust him as far as I can throw you / See how we are". It's as bold, astute, and as affecting a song as this band has ever performed, and it serves the group well to be included among the last original works of what would be the end run of one of rock n roll's truly gifted bands.
After See How We Are and it's subsequent tour (which would find permanent Zoom replacement Tony Gilkyson on guitar), X would break up to concentrate on solo careers, acting projects, marriage, and raising families. They would come back in the early '90's to make an album that is an X album really in name only, tour, make an excellent acoustic live album in '95, break up again, and after a '98 autograph signing session that found Zoom joining the band for the first time in 13 years, would reunite once more with the guitarist to launch yearly tours as, in the words of John Doe, "A great X cover band", that continue to this day. Never getting a glimpse of where this band may of gone creatively as a full time rock n roll band after the See How We Are album, fans of the group are left merely to speculate what could of been, although with so much timeless rock n roll left behind by this extraordinary band, it hardly matters, as they had given so much already. In a 2002 interview John Doe was asked what it felt like to survive punk? After all, he had fought many a war for many years, right down in the punk rock trenches and lived to tell about it, and was now a mature and respected songwriter in his own right. His response? "It feels like not surviving punk. Only you're still alive". See How We Are is the very sound of that survival. And it's a worthy last effort that can sit alongside, if not find itself equal to, the best this band had to offer.