Kissingsohard (Forward/Rhino)
The John Doe Thing

By Bob Bahr

The good news is that The John Doe Thing sounds like X, except Doe sings all the lead vocals, the punk thunder has been traded in for an almost romantic pop-rock attitude, and the production is clean. The bad news is Kissingsohard burns too slowly and evenly to scar the public consciousness. It'll never hit the charts. Same old story: Another fine work disappears, leaving only the smiles of confirmed fans who are in the know.

John Doe writes and sings melodies that make the tragic seem hopeful and the hopeful sound tragic. Hear the bittersweet "Kissing," as unassumingly romantic as a Saturday night date at the county fair. Check the sad accusation of "T.V. Set" and the distinctive empathy of "Fallen Tears," and hear the musical polish that Doe has used to replace youthful punkiness. Kissingsohard is a beautiful vehicle for Doe's voice and ideas.

Liner-note watchers smell an X reunion here, but D.J. Bonebrake's contribution is only a little bit of vibes work, and Exene Cervenka's backing vocals are only on a handful of the disc's thirteen songs. Still, the hearts of X fans will skip a beat when "My Goodness" cues up; the brooding song sure sounds like X -- '95-style. In fact, Kissingsohard sounds like the natural growth of X from their '80s heyday. The music fits the current alternative rock climate and surpasses most of the present offerings.

Doe's voice always did seem like a noble savage among the animalistic screaming of his fellow punks. Here, he sounds like a statesman that deserves careful musicianship, the kind offered by guitarist Smokey Hormel, bassist Brad Houser and drummers Joey Waronker and Charlie "Chalo" Quintana. This ensemble can make it rough or play it smooth, sometimes in the same song. "Beer, Gas, Ride Forever" (with Sandra Bernhard on backing vocals) sounds like one of Adrian Belew's experiments in rowdiness. "Liar's Market" is a carefully listless, unfocused indictment of those who move up the ladder by stepping on people. The tune's relatively chaotic music reflects the manic anger in the lyrics. On the other side, "Going Down Fast" is well-crafted and tight enough to withstand the scrutiny of a solo acoustic setting, should Doe ever choose to present it that way.

Varied in texture but not in quality, Kissingsohard asserts the continuing vitality of one of American punk's early lights.