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Original Sinners
Original Sinners

I have always looked at the review sections of various 'zines and Web sites with initial suspicion; there are so many ways in which to lose faith in them. Either the rag is a review mill, with one-paragraph summaries that ensure the editor will keep the ad revenue and free CDs flowing, or the "fanzine" attitude overtakes nearly every review. In either case, the reader faces page after page of interchangeable stone raves and the impression that no one records a lame album anymore.

Kissing record-label ass is a age-old tradition in music journalism. That's just a fact, which underscores just how unusual it is to find a well-written review that takes a record apart, examines its guts, and intelligently declares them smelly and gross. The first review I ever wrote was negative, and I feared that the 'zine editor would shitcan it for that very reason. He didn't, and ended up being served with a slander or libel lawsuit, I forget which.

I was euphoric, to say the least, but my point is not to toot my own horn. Every time I write a rave, I wonder if I'm just a fan who has no objectivity. Integrity dictates that a critic call a turd a turd, polished though it may be. But lest this turn into an essay on the subject, let's move on to the record at hand.

The Original Sinners are a twangy cowpunk band fronted by one of the faces on Mt. Twangmore — the lovely Exene Cervenka, still a member of X (she also co-led X's more acoustically-oriented country-folk side band, The Knitters). Exene has surrounded herself with a fine crew of young guns from all over the current L.A. scene: Kim Chi, recruited from The Distillers, on bass and vocals; Sam Soto, formerly of Sluts for Hire, on guitar; Jason Edge, of Dementia 13, Drunkabilly, and other surfabilly/punk thangs, on guitar and vocals; and Mat Young, also from The Distillers, on the skins. All of them are good-looking kids with sideburns (except for Kim, who is good-looking, but no sideburns).

Now Exene has done plenty with herself in between sporadic shows with X, including writing and performing her spoken word, solo and in collaboration, and putting out a one-off record, which was quite good, on Lookout!, under the name Auntie Christ, a few years back. In fact, it was stated then that she pretty much learned to play guitar to record that album. Her talents have only improved on Original Sinners, both lyrically and musically.

Attention: this is the point in the review that I hope will explain its introduction. I can't be honest with myself or anybody who might read this without declaring that X is, six out of seven days a week, my Favorite Band of All Time. There, I said it. Why do you think I volunteered to review this record? I'm not getting paid. Not in money, anyway. But I'm certainly gaining untold cultural (spiritual?) wealth with this CD in my carousel.

In post-X musical output, John Doe has been more prolific, but Exene has been much more consistent, and Original Sinners serves as a whopping dose of evidence to that effect. It's impossible not to compare the new album to the classics she recorded with X during the first half of the '80s, so I'm forced to make a couple of such observations. To some degree, a good number of Original Sinners tracks offer a version of the famous Doe/Exene slightly-out-of-tune harmony vocals (perhaps X's signature sound), thanks to Kim Chi's help on backup vocals. They're in evidence beginning with the opener, "Birds & Bees," which also uses the stutter-stop-and-start trick so perfectly executed on X's version of the Jerry Lee Lewis classic "Great Balls of Fire" (on More Fun in the New World). Thus, there's a bit of familiarity from the get-go, but also a delightful newness in the female/female vocal blend.

The other thing that's noticeable right away is the sound of the two guitarists, Edge and Soto. Edge does quite a bit with the slide guitar, adding another country/blues element. And between the two of them, any X fan will notice a comforting and gleeful channeling of the magical artistry of X legend Billy Zoom's neo-rockabilly riffage.

By mentioning these similarities, I fear I'm only conveying the sense that the Original Sinners are either an inevitable rip-off of X or a long-awaited tribute, née homage. Well, the correct answer to that choice depends upon your opinion of X in the first place. Myself, I think this record represents little to none of the former. Rather, it shows just how much Exene's musical sensibility is married to a "sound," just as Van Gogh's style was defined by thick, loaded, savage paint strokes. I see nothing wrong with this, especially since I dig it. If I hated it, I'd probably say that Exene is in a deep-ditch rut and can't "evolve." But I love this record, so I can only thank her for "staying true." I provide this information to you, dear reader, so that you can take my personal prejudices into account and make a more informed decision based on that knowledge. Now, to hell with objectivity!

As for the "homage" comment, well, you'd have to ask Exene herself, but I doubt she'd say she set out to rerun late-'70s Los Angeles cowpunk. Did it ever leave? Ask Dave Alvin, he'd say "hell, nope!" Screw it. Listen to "One Too Many Lies" and "Whiskey for Supper" and tell me that the line "I need a little bartenderness" (from "Whiskey for Supper") shouldn't have been written by David Allan Coe 30 years ago. But it wasn't! Sorry, Coe. The Original Sinners take everything I love about country music and run it through a Rat distortion pedal, and come up with their own cowpunk sound.

Three instrumentals are included in this collection: "Alligator Teeth" and "Mourning After" by Sam Soto, and "Tick Tock", written by Exene herself, which is notable because of her unorthodox approach to the guitar. Says Soto, "Her guitar style is very unique, and she invents a lot of the chords she uses."

The 13-song Original Sinners sticks more closely to country and blues forms (hear it in the ever-loving tune titled "Woke Up This Mornin") than X did, putting it closer to The Knitters by way of influence — if The Knitters had eschewed all acoustic instruments and cranked the amps.

There's a real "driving to the beach" mood to the album — not to catch a wave, but to build an illegal bonfire and drink from open containers until all is ashes and drunken sing-alongs. The whole shebang is over with in just 32.5 minutes — like I said, this is a cowpunk album. But if you're like me, you'll just hit "repeat" anyway.

by Bob Toevs

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