- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

“I wish we could do new material as X,” says singer Exene Cervenka from her home in Los Angeles. In the meantime, the original L.A. punkers will hit the 9:30 Club on Saturday to play the should-have-been-hits.

Formed in 1977, X merged powerful and poetic lyrics about alienation, crime, and drugs with a rockabilly beat (soon dubbed “cowpunk”), winning over fans and mainstream music critics.

But by the late 1980s both Miss Cervenka and singer-bassist John Doe had divorced, and the band was on hiatus. They had mainstream success as a country-rock band in the early ‘90s with “New Life” and “Country at War” (even playing at RFK Stadium) but split up in 1996.

In 1998 Billy Zoom, the guitarist, wanted to get back together, Miss Cervenka says, and she did too: “I wanted to get the band back to the original sound.”

Miss Cervenka apparently got her wish: the current set list draws largely from the first four albums. Original drummer D.J. Bonebrake signed back on as well.

Among recent X rereleases is their 1980 debut, “Los Angeles,” originally produced by ex-Door Ray Manzarek. Miss Cervenka says she came up with the title for the vivid “Johny Hit and Run Paulene” and Mr. Doe then wrote a song around the question “What if there was such a thing as a sex drug?” Mr. Doe contributed his trademark desperate vocals, a Chuck Berry opening riff, and a nod to ‘60s garage rock in the line “96 tears through 24 hours.”

The classic title track reveals a crushed woman who flees town after coming to hate every group in the city, with Mr. Doe and Miss Cervenka providing the haunting “get out” voices in her head.

The album has held up “excellently” says Miss Cervenka, partly because “it’s pretty bleak here, actually.”

“It’s all still true, it’s a question of who you blame,” she suggests.

Miss Cervenka says she and Mr. Doe haven’t written any new X songs, “but if we keep going we probably will.” And is she still punk after all these years? “If I’m not punk, then nobody is.”

“I’m working on this full time, and I’ll tell you, it is a full-time job,” exclaims local singer-songwriter Chrissy Coughlin. You can see her at work Saturday night at the Zebra Lounge on upper Wisconsin Avenue NW.

“I actually got a master’s degree in environmental management,” she says, laughing. “I was just working my tail off for about 12 hours a day, and then I was going out singing at night and trying to practice.”

So last August she quit to pursue music full time, and so far has no regrets.

“I mean, obviously you take a pay cut; obviously you don’t have that stability…you just make do. … It comes with the whole package.” That “package” includes booking her own shows, and selling her 2002 debut CD “You Never Know.”

The album’s artwork, especially the back photo of Miss Coughlin walking into the distance with her acoustic guitar case, suggests a sister-goldenhair Lucinda Williams, which isn’t that far off the musical mark.

The repetitive chorus of the opener (and designated single) “Don’t Do It Alone” gradually becomes a seductive pastoral drone thanks to self-backing vocals punctuated by swaying high coos and low moans. It resembles a lesser-ranged Natalie Merchant, or a smoke-free, non-raspy Williams.

“I get the Natalie Merchant a lot, especially live,” says Miss Coughlin, who also brings echoes of Rickie Lee Jones to “Sammy” and Amy Correia to “Hallelujah.”

“Alone” is also interesting because for once it’s the lover and not the singer who’s forced to wander. It details Miss Coughlin’s breakup with a man who’s “gonna climb mountains far and wide/all by himself, no partner by his side.”

“Freedom” is another real-life heartbreaker featuring crackling folk-rock electric guitar from Larry Ashley. The jangly “Rain” sounds faintly like the Eagles, while “Holding Out” has Miss Coughlin referencing her ex as well as her roots with an Irish lilt and a “Danny Boy” reference.

At six minutes, the lush, non-maudlin September 11 tribute “Hallelujah” is probably too long for commercial radio, though lyrically and musically it’s the album’s fullest song.

A comparative novice on guitar, Miss Coughlin doesn’t stretch too much here, apparently preferring to establish a signature sound. That sound includes the first instrument she learned.

“It’s not like I can rip it like Jethro Tull … but it’ll set you apart if you pick up the flute for a couple of songs.”

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