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
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