Hey Zeus! (Big Life/Mercury)

By Bob Bahr

This is probably the least surprising album of note released this year, chronicling predictable growth from what was once the most important punk band from Los Angeles. Hey Zeus! isn't bland — how could any X album be bland in today's musical climate? But it isn't a hallmark of the Next Big Thing either. It's simply more X.

It makes sense that X's rockabilly-punk-country mix would mellow a bit, spotlighting the songwriting and letting everything breathe freer. It's sensible to downplay the musical components that were X trademarks: minor-key vocals, unbridled energy, razor guitar riffs on top of sophisticated lyrics. Why cover the same ground again? Yet it isn't disappointing (or unexpected) when X drifts into familiar punky ground toward the end of the disc, climaxing with the hot duo of "Baby You Lied" and "Lettuce and Vodka."

Actually, it would have been fun if this gently subversive and political album (with songs such as "Someone's Watching," "Country at War," "Arms for Hostages") had come out last year. The possible confusion with the Spike Lee film would have raised hackles (and X-consciousness) nationwide. As it is, Hey Zeus! runs the risk of being quietly forgotten. If there is a hit in here, it's hiding well.

Perhaps that is because the aforementioned trademarks that made X's name a notable band are downplayed so rigorously. Up front in the sound mix are the bass and the electric guitar, which allows the grooves and melodies to be spotlighted, but partially obscures the unique vocal interaction of John Doe and Exene Cervenka. And I hate to be a spoil-sport, but the world's need for guitarcentric albums is limited. On Hey Zeus!, guitarist Tony Gilkyson's Hendrix homages make for pretty music, but are just plain tired. Yes, yes, we've all heard "Third Stone from the Sun," and yes, it is flippin' awesome. Paraphrasing it in "Drawn in the Dark" only invites comparisons, not illumination.

Still, this is an X album. Songs like "New Life" and "Big Blue House" disarm you with modest lyrics about domestic life, while "Country at War" and "Arms for Hostages" debates where money should be spent in a country with rampant poverty. Punk energy burns in an even flame on "Clean Like Tomorrow," with its chugging chorus and Gilkyson-moody verses. Folks would pack Tewligans to hear this music, but they would listen closely rather than thrash around. Can there be such a thing as mature punk? Hey Zeus!