As good as Los Angeles was and as important as that album would ultimately prove to be in the presentation of X, the band’s debut album will ultimately always play a supporting role to the band’s sophomore long-player, Wild Gift. Now, it’s important to note that Wild Gift would not, could not have happened had the groundwork not been laid by Los Angeles, but there’s no denying that Wild Gift casts an incredibly long shadow beneath which everything else X has ever done appears; like it as not, Wild Gift is X’s calling card and the measure by which everything else the band has written and recorded has been judged.
As difficult as it may be to believe, Wild Gift sets itself up as being a significant move forward in demeanor before the music even starts (check out the album’s back cover and the photos of the bandmembers on it, and some of the changes and growth are apparent in them)i – but all question is removed as soon as “Once Over Twice” kicks open the A-side. There, Billy Zoom’s guitar races as hard as it rages against DJ Bonebrake’s drums (John Doe’s bass remains criminally low in the mix), but the star and spectacle in the song is unquestionably Xene Cervenka. Here, the change of the singer’s presence is obvious; even on Los Angeles, Cervenka obviously had a voice and presence, but her voice carries weight, confidence and a manner that it simply did not possess before, and she has no problem throwing it around. Lines like “I just heard the sad song/ By another band sung/ By another man he gave/ Me the once over twice” take on a different significance delivered with Cervenka’s gorgeous deadpan tone, and cause those who hear them to fall lovingly in line behind the singer in a way which overshadows imagery like lines about hanging with the endless rope. Here, more songwriterly fare trumps the more obviously poetic designs in the song perfectly, and that angle endures through “We’re Desperate, Get Used To It” before Doe steals the mic for “Adult Books,” which sounds like a punk band ironically trying to five-finger Paul Anka’s established, casino-performing persona. Unlike their focus on Los Angeles, X boldly lets every idea they’ve entertained hang out proudly to give them all some air – and rather than losing focus because they’re trying new things any time they can, each song holds to a bold and brash notion that anything can be possible in this band’s hands. Listeners, for their part, will find themselves loving each turn and lapping it all up – they’ll relish the surfier turns that X attempts (“Universal Corner”) and don’t even blink when the mood shifts to proto cow-punk (granted, “I’m Coming Over” is more “punk” than “cow,” but everyone has to start somewhere) before finally closing the side with the great, straight-out punk croon of “It’s Who You Know.”
Even now, thirty-nine years after its’ first release, “It’s Who You Know” remains a document within punk rock which exists without parallel. The guitar work in the song is stunning; before Wild Gift‘s release, guitar tones and performances like it were found on surf records, but they were never as fast, acerbic or tight (compare it to “Search and Destroy” by Iggy and The Stooges, for example), but they’d appear EVERYWHERE (including in songs by Social Distortion, Jane’s Addiction, NOFX and Rise Against – to name only the first few which come to this critic’s mind) thereafter. Billy Zoom would, very simply, either inspire an entire generation of punk guitarists, or at lesat present a form and style so infectious that it would root itself deeply and just proliferate everywhere. Such a performance is easy to find anywhere on Wild Gift, but the one in “It’s Who You Know” is placed perfectly in the album’s runtime and it’s capable of feeling like an excellent punctuation for the end of the album’s A-side. It also ends up informing everything which came before it as well as hooking listeners to ensure they follow through to experience the album’s B-side too. “It’s Who You Know” is, very simply, a perfect song and perfect bait to keep listeners on with Wild Gift – if they don’t have time, they’ll MAKE time.
With “It’s Who You Know” having totally energized the end of Wild Gift‘s A-side, “In This House I Call Home” simply cannot help but appear to stand as a brand apart as it opens the album’s B-side. There, rather than driving forward with anything which might resemble a form of punk, John Doe steals the mic and sort of speeds up the movement on roots music to sort of produce a direct predecessor to alt-country; throughout the song, Doe adds a nervous quiver to his voice which instantly defaults to feeling folksy, while the band saunters through a form similar to those Porter Waggoner was making in the mid-Seventies. In retrospect (particularly after the alt-country boom of the late Nineties and early new Millennium), “In This House I Call Home” represents a direct link between the forms of both C&W and punk rock and alt-country which is absolutely hypnotic to hear now; the combination of Bonebrake’s startlingly slick drums, Zoom’s scaled-back guitar and Doe’s delightfully spry bass (which is finally more audible in the mix here) and the vocal combination of Doe and Cervenka that is almost romantic in its delivery here is just hypnotic. After that, Cervenka illustrates a perfectly fascinating combination of (for the times when Reagan was running the show in the United States) complicated romance, home life and politics in “Some Other Time” (lines like, “Let’s not talk about bombs and the brain impulses of severed limbs/ You will always subtract your arms from my arms/ Someone always interrupts us when we talk so I’m gonna draw this evening’s line/ Before my wash hangs on it for everyone to see” are the sort that some artists try the entire duration of their careers to produce) before sarcastically re-treading the ground over America’s fascination with “the blonde” in “White Girl,” Zoom steals the show with some stellar surf-inspired licks in “Beyond And Back” and finally leading everything back to the realm of L.A. punk with “Back 2 The Base”. There, X proves that no band has made better use of one minute and twenty-eight seconds as they stomp in, singe listeners’ synapses with a simple progression and structure and then just hard stop to close. Not even The Ramones were capable of producing a punk song as simple and perfect as “Back To The Base,” and then the band just moves on to the next thing like it didn’t matter – even forty years later, it’s still unbelievable.
Maybe because they already know they’re on a roll (or maybe because listeners have just been hooked that deeply), X just showcases glorious chops as the end of the record draws near. “When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch” blazes through brilliantly immediately after ”Back 2 The Base” and sees Exene Cervenka sounding simultaneously injured and furious (the cinematic scenes in the song pale stacked next to lines like “I hate it/ I love you/ I hate that/ I need to know/ What you do when our love/ Passed out on the couch/ You’re fateful/ I’m hateful/ And…”), before the band just digresses and offers up the prmier surf-punk song they’d penned to that point (“Year 1”) to close out the record. In that end (even forty years later!) no listener will be able to deny that their head has been left spinning by the series of songs that X has left on the B-side of Wild Gift; like a series of perfect punches, listeners will just be left reeling and totally infatuated by X.
Every time anyone runs front-to-back with this reissue of X’s sophomore album, the result will be the same: regardless of whether its their first time through or their hundredth, listeners will find themselves breathing hard at the experience. Why? Very simply, no band and no scene produced an album like it at the time, or has produced one since; X’s second record is a classic album because it pushes the boundaries of what punk was capable of being at the time. The palette that X was using to write their songs was completely unlike that which other bands were using, and the band ended up informing the sounds that everyone from Wilco to Agent Orange to Forgotten Rebels and many, many more would utilize to realize their vision in the decades that followed. Not many bands can say they exerted that kind of influence, but X can – and their second album is the root of that influence.Wild Gift is exactly that; the album is a spectacular endowment or legacy, and this vinyl reissue gives the music all the credit it deserves.