After spending the first half of the '80's making some of the most engaging punk rock ever to be committed to record and spending the last half sputtering to a halt after the Ain't Love Grand album and departure of guitarist Billy Zoom, X would call it quits in '88 after releasing the different but very respectable See How We Are album and a barn burning double live album from their final tour recorded in front of a hometown crowd at the legendary Whiskey A Go-Go nightclub on the Sunset Strip.
But old punks die hard, and in late 1990 the group returned to inform us that while they may of mentioned they had broken up for good at some point, they were actually just on an extended hiatus and were back to tour and record once more as a working and touring rock n roll band. Releasing the decent but unremarkable "Hey Zeus" album in '93 (an X album in name only, as it sounds like various members solo material with a bit of X seasoning) and launching another tour to promote it, the band would find itself at the end of it's rope once more and launch a brief acoustic tour in '95 to end their 17 year journey right where they began it, the concert stage. It would be on this final outing that the Unclogged album would be born.
Having played acoustic/folk music as their alter ego band the Knitters for a number of years in the '80's ( releasing the highly acclaimed "Poor Little Critter In The Road" LP in �85) and singers John Doe and Exene Cervenka being students of folk music tradition as well as Billy Zoom replacement Tony Gilkyson having roots in country music, the Unclogged album would find X on familiar ground and sounding very much at home in their newly unplugged format and style. This is not a folk/country album, however. It is an acoustic rock album. Taking some classic X tunes, some odds and ends, and that old familiar harmony of singers Doe and Cervenka and giving them a good reworking, this is a loud, spirited performance. And it finds this band going out for the second time in it's storied career on a high note.
From the beginning it's obvious this is not going to be an acoustic snooze fest as the band starts us out with a spunky sit down version of the X classic "White Girl". A long time fan favorite and the song some say Kurt Cobain lifted the riff for "Come As You Are" from, this tune is well suited for the treatment given here and shows the band, now almost 20 years down the line, in top musical form. Coming along next is a completely unexpected version of the drunk and unhappily married punk rant "Because I Do" from the "Under The Big Black Sun" album, and it's a treat for any fan of this band to be sure. With a completely different arrangement, X give it a smoky jazz flavor here with wonderful xylophone work from drummer DJ. Bonebrake and haunting, cool vocals from Doe and Cervenka. And it's just the first of several times on this record that the skilled songwriting of John and Exene will come out from under all that punk rock goodness it had been wrapped in for so long.
After the latter day Doe/X tune "Lying In The Road" which finds our singers at full voice for the first time on the record and the band actually rocking with guitar, bass, and drums all in tow, the band settles in for a silky, vibe led rendition of another X favorite "The Unheard Music". This song, so hard and heavy on record and in performance, is completely undone and put back together here and plays like some dark, graceful prayer that has come to sooth rather then bludgeon as it does on the Los Angeles album. And it's a shock and revelation to here it in this way. Less successful though is the next cut up, the overlong and overwrought "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts". Although not a bad song, this number was similar on the record it was taken from and the feeling was always that it could use a bit more oomph. Here, deprived of what little oomph it once had and with nothing else really changed about it, it simply drags on until it comes to an uneasy end. Thankfully, guitarist Tony Gilkyson pulls out his trusty old Fender Telecaster for the next track, a spirited, countrified version of the Top 40 single "Burning House Of Love", and the band is off and running once again.
Helping to get the second half of the record off to a fine start we are treated to more X favorites because after all, this is an X record. And despite it's musical setting, very much sounds like one. "See How We Are" from the album of the same name makes a folksy appearance with it's socially conscious lyrics tweaked just a little to reflect the time it was being sung in rather then the time it was written, and that's followed by the easy and fun rockabilly of the More Fun In The New World rave up "True Love Pt. 2.", which is given the full backwoods hootenanny treatment and then some. Far from the blistering heat this song was on record, it once again shows the quality of these songs stripped down and unadorned. And as if to make a point of it, it is quickly followed by the honkytonk blues of one of X's best songs, the ode to the drinking life "Under The Big Black Sun" rocker "The Have Not's".
Closing things out with a bang after a lackluster attempt at a mellowed out "The World's A Mess It's In My Kiss", and the band throws us one final curveball with the charged up acoustic punk of "I See Red". Another fan favorite that can really be played only one way no matter the instruments you use to play it, this song barrels ahead with a wide open throttle, acoustic instruments be damned. And last but not least, the on record "Ain't Love Grand" clunker "What's Wrong With Me" is rescued from our bad memories and finally does after many years what we'd been wishing it always had. It rocks.
I suppose it's true. Old punk bands, and perhaps old rock bands in general, do die hard. But that doesn't mean they have to die bad. 17 years down the road and on this record X shows that while the band members may of aged and the music as well, that is no excuse for giving up, giving in, or becoming stale and stagnant. This final recording from the Tony Gilkyson years, coming many years after their initial run and a good decade past their "greatest band that never happened" period, shows that no matter the years put behind them X still had in them what they had from the start. And perhaps most importantly had produced a body of work that can not just stand the test of time, but do it with musical grace, dignity, a bit of fire in it's belly, and plenty of soul in it's heart. And that's about as fine a way as I can think for any band to take one last bow.