Wild Gifts

New X, Replacements, and Pixies anthologies tell the bittersweet tale of '80s underground rock

X, the Replacements, and the Pixies. Innovative '80s bands that changed the rock side of pop music from the underground up. Disparate characters from various sides of the country--X the proto-West Coast punks, the Replacements the standard in Midwestern garage bands and the Pixies a textbook Eastern college-rock act--who nonetheless shared a punk-inspired do-it-yourself ethos. Three bands that burned out even as they faded away, but with a sound that survives as the very bedrock of alternative music--even if now, as then, they're rarely heard on radio or seen on MTV.

This triumvirate of modern American music is suddenly being remembered by double-CD anthologies put out by curiously reverential record labels. Does the industry feel it's finally time to pay homage to these precursors of the lucrative alternative-rock format? Hardly. Look at the calendar. 'Tis the season for "Best ofs," and there are only so many ways you can repackage those Elvis Costello and Clash catalogues.

Industry intentions notwithstanding, these new collections are keepers, all three valuable and, yes, nostalgic glances back at the height of America's independent underground.

The first and arguably most original of the three acts was X, a band that did more than simply shout angry edicts ("We're desperate, get used to it") and usher in West Coast punk. X was a band of artists, a group that expressed itself as if its noise was an exhibit at some abandoned downtown warehouse. X's sound was immediately striking, most notably in the exhausted yet life-affirming harmonies of co-leaders John Doe and wife Exene Cervenkova (formerly Cervenka), archetype of the thrift-store Raggedy Ann sound and look. On X's first album, 1980's Los Angeles, Doe and Cervenkova made it quickly known that their wailing voices came with equally striking words: "She had to leave Los Angeles," they sang on the title cut. "She had started to hate every nigger and Jew/Every Mexican that gave her lotta shit/Every homosexual and idle rich/She had to get out, get out."

L.A. to X was a bit inland from cheery Beach Boys tunes.
The title cut from Los Angeles opens Beyond and Back: The X Anthology with suitable spunk, and from there the compilation moves fast. By cut five, "Hungry Wolf," from X's third album and major-label debut, Under the Big Black Sun, the band's energy is still shown to be focused, the anger still threatening to spill over, but the passion's enhanced by better production. If X's second album, Wild Gift, was the band's most convincing effort, Under the Big Black Sun was its most accomplished and its last truly important LP.

Among the other great stuff on the anthology's first disc is a monster 1979 demo of the Doors' "Soul Kitchen" that not only beats the version off Los Angeles, but totally smokes Jim Morrison's original. There's also a toto-punk take on "The Once Over Twice" from a 1982 show in San Diego. Other concert killers include "Beyond and Back" from an '82 L.A. gig at the Country Club, with the same show offering a boffo take on another Wild Gift song, "Universal Corner." Also of note: a remixed outtake of "Blue Spark," perhaps the band's best pop song and among the most lyrically subtle in alluding to Doe and Cervenkova's blatantly hashed-out marital woes.

Disc two presents X as a postpunk band that slowly but relentlessly adopts country music as its new voice. Maybe it was all the breakup songs, maybe the band really had to get out of Los Angeles, but the keyed-up explosiveness of the first three albums gave way to more tuneful, if less intense, John Doe-sung songs and to the band's increasing attention to its country-fried side group, the Knitters. Granted, many of X's songs from the mid-'80s were strong--among the best, "Poor Girl," is included here--and the Knitters were influential in themselves, helping to instigate what would evolve into the current "No Depression" neo-twang. But Doe and Cervenkova's vision blurred as they moved from the art house to the trailer park. Credit X for not clinging to its jagged, youthful angst, but Beyond and Back: The X Anthology proves that Doe and Cervenkova were more Sid and Nancy than George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and most likely still are.

The Replacements were the Rolling Stones, the Heartbreakers, the New York Dolls and other raunchy rock acts rolled into a scruffy, Middle American mess. The Minneapolis foursome was once and always a shameless, full-tilt indie-rock band, its scattershot brilliance making for live shows that ranged from beyond perfection to wanton mediocrity. The Replacements were sloppy energy made musical, which makes it surprising to hear how singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg's slower songs hold up better than the rockers on the double-disc retrospective All for Nothing/Nothing for All. The acutely pensive "Here Comes a Regular," for example, tugs even harder now with its profile of the beautiful loser at the corner bar. It's a tremendous song, and one that resonates sharper when considering casualties, like the Replacements' original guitarist, the late Bob Stinson, who never survived such a life. The acoustic and equally effective "Skyway" also jumps out, its charm embedded within its hopeful ache of introspection.

The Replacements' raucous up-tempo tunes, on the other hand, somehow sound scrawnier, the broken bluster smoothed over the years. Even so, "Left of the Dial" still rings with a crooked, melancholy bliss, and "Bastards of Young" is still a monster, its core of alienation a perfect reminder of the band's ill-fated lunge at the big time on Tim, its first major-label release. "God, what a mess, on the ladder of success," Westerberg sang with weary adrenaline. "You take a first step and miss the whole first rung."

Highlights amid the hodgepodge of outtakes and demos on the compilation's second disc include "Beer for Breakfast," a refreshingly pregrunge splotch of sound and attitude ("Hallafuckinlooyah, I'm a bum," Westerberg shouts with glee), and "'Til We're Nude," a convincing rocker that should never have been left off the band's second major-label disc, Pleased to Meet Me. Notable cover-song efforts range from goofiness ("Jungle Rock") to inspired goofiness ("Cruella DeVille") to hipper-than-thouness (the Only Ones' classic, "Another Girl, Another Planet," one of the most revered of cool-band cover songs).

Those gloriously half-assed renditions call attention to the biggest drawback on All for Nothing/Nothing for All. Most of the cuts on the anthology are taken from the Replacements' major-label period, which began in 1985 with the admittedly awesome Tim, and ended in 1991, when the band petered out, having become a glorified solo project for an increasingly sobered up and sentimental Westerberg.

Indeed, the pictures on the back of the double-CD's jewel box and its booklet indicate how far this "retrospective" reaches. Bob Stinson, the dress-wearing, hell-raising, slash-and-burn guitarist who was dumped between Tim and Pleased to Meet Me, is nowhere to be found in the photos. That's an unacceptable oversight. As is the absence of pre-major-label songs like "Unsatisfied," from 1984's Let It Be, and the phenomenal "Color Me Impressed" off Hootenanny, released in '83. Contractual problems no doubt blocked those and other songs from the band's Twin/Tone Records days from making the list, but the best Replacements look-back will include everything on All for Nothing/Nothing for All, to be sure, as well as the Replacements' wonderfully haphazard early years.

The Pixies possessed neither the catch-as-catch-can appeal of the Replacements nor the politicized importance of X. Not that the Pixies couldn't be engaging or, for that matter, take themselves too seriously. Indeed, the band often managed to be at once ingratiating and smug on the bulk of its considerable collection of work in the late '80s and early '90s. Lead vocalist/songwriter Black Francis (ne Charles Thompson) still comes off that way in his solo career as Frank Black.

From the git-go, the Pixies threatened to be too cool for the room. It was a Boston-based band with albums released on England's mysteriously prestigious 4AD Records, the ultrahip import label best known for sending the Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and other inscrutable British acts across the pond. The Pixies and fellow Bostonians Throwing Muses were the label's first tries with U.S. acts, and the Pixies were certainly all-American, from their guitar-attacked songs to Thompson's roars and howls.

Death to the Pixies nicely covers the band's substantial collection of songs, including "Here Comes Your Man," a simple, undeniably catchy tune, and "Debaser," a kind of schematic of the classic Pixies song, with its solo intro from bassist Kim Deal, followed by a sharp hook courtesy of guitarist Joey Santiago, leading to the essential vocal tirade from Thompson. The song is capped by Deal's blase back-up vocals, which offer a cool counterpoint to Thompson's hysterics. Deal's vocal presence was always the Pixies' secret weapon, and it's no surprise that she went on to lead her later band, the Breeders, to record one of the strongest albums of recent years, 1994's Last Splash, a disc that now sounds like the best album the Pixies never made.

Still, the Pixies put out strong albums. And what made the music especially indispensable was accessibility. Here were songs that were experimental in tone and aloof in nature, but easily digested. The simple, at times opaque, approach was inventive and familiar with a clear hint of feistiness, which allowed the underground elite to embrace the Pixies even as frat houses blasted the band's songs.

But whereas X chronicled the onslaught of punk in expressionistic tones and the Replacements wrote songs of disheveled tenderness, the Pixies played touch and go with smugness. They'd use Dadaistic word play in lightly metaphoric odes to archaeology and space travel instead of writing about honest feelings among humans in the mist. "Digging for Fire" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven" were topnotch songs, and the Pixies' po-mo pop smarts allow their material to sound more current than much of the Replacements' oeuvre and most of the X files. But that's only because the age of irony, a defining characteristic of the '80s and a crucial element of the Pixies' muse, still grips.

When it comes to emotional evocation, Thompson's affected screams now seem about as convincing as an evangelical's angst before the plate is passed. It's music that sounds best from far away--in more ways than one.

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