The Violent Femmes burst out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the early ’80s, a remarkably original trio playing acoustic instruments and singing intense, personal songs with remarkable candor and love. Initially resembling a punk version of the Modern Lovers, the Femmes — Gordon Gano (vocals, guitar, songs), Brian Ritchie (bass) and Victor De Lorenzo (drums) — have grown more uncommon over the years, fixing a flexible style that resembles no other band.
On the skeletal first album, Violent Femmes, Gano’s articulate passion and lyrical maladjustment combine with the charged (but not very loud) playing to convey an incredible sense of desperation and rage. “Blister in the Sun” and “Kiss Off” are typical of the anger seething in the grooves, while “Gone Daddy Gone” and “Please Do Not Go” show a more upbeat side still rooted in extreme individuality and super-ego. The disc’s best couplet: “Why can’t I get just one fuck?/Guess it’s got something to do with luck.” (The deluxe reissue includes an album’s worth of demos and rarities and an entire second disc of contemporaneous concert performances.)
Hallowed Ground takes a much different approach, displaying Gano’s religious fervor and connecting with traditional American folk music. The cast includes a banjo picker and autoharp strummer, as well as a horn’n’clarinet section; the material encompasses tragic balladry (“Country Death Song”), old-timey spirituals (“Jesus Walking on the Water,” “It’s Gonna Rain”), mild be-bop (“Sweet Misery Blues”) and demented jazz-funk (“Black Girls”). Not as pointed as the first album, it nonetheless showcases an inquisitive band deeply committed to self-expression, regardless of the consequences.
The Blind Leading the Naked was produced by Talking Head Jerry Harrison with conscious mainstreaming intent. Of course, the Femmes at their most commercial are still pretty radical, although “I Held Her in My Arms” does sound unnervingly like Bruce Springsteen. As if to prove their orneriness, a vituperative attack on “Old Mother Reagan” and the similarly anti-authoritarian “No Killing” demonstrate an undying rebellious spirit. But it’s another type of spirit that invests the bluesy “Faith” and the Stonesy “Love & Me Make Three,” keeping god in the grooves alongside Marc Bolan, who gets worked over with a misbegotten Headsish version of “Children of the Revolution.” The Velvet Underground fares better on “Good Friend,” a Femmes original that uncannily echoes Lou Reed.
The Mercy Seat is an energetically electric album by Gano’s all-gospel side group. Backing big-voiced (but mini-skirted) singer Zena Von Heppinstall in a lineup with a bassist and drummer, he plays guitar and joins the choruses of such numbers as “I Am a Pilgrim” and “I Don’t Need Nobody Else (but Jesus).”
De Lorenzo co-produced and, with Ritchie, provided most of the instrumental backing on WisconsInsane, a loopy extravaganza from singing dairy state keyboardist/flautist Sigmund Snopek III. (Snopek’s previous albums — solo and with his eponymous group, going back to the late ’70s — were subsequently reissued by his new label.) While their contributions to such serio-comical Midwest maunderings as “The Rose of Wisconsin,” “Thank God This Isn’t Cleveland” and “I’m So Tired of Singing About the Sky” tend to be lost in the slick production, the LP is a cute theatrical diversion.
Snopek returned the favor by playing keyboards on 3, the Femmes’ first new LP in three years. Settled into a comfortable creative torpor, the trio revisits familiar terrain with easy confidence and very little evident artistic ambition or effort: the loudly electric arrangement of “Fool in the Full Moon” is about the extent of the record’s adventures. (The swaying jazzy feel of “Outside the Palace” and the rock beat of the vengeful “Mother of a Girl” make them 3‘s only memorable tunes.) Gano’s songwriting and delivery have their usual odd character and some of the old passion, but the Femmes don’t seem to be making much progress or impact in any direction here.
After another lengthy hiatus, the Femmes returned with Why Do Birds Sing?, a stripped-down effort that harks back to Violent Femmes and contains three tunes (“Girl Trouble,” “Life Is a Scream” and “Flamingo Baby”) Gano wrote during the creative frenzy that produced most of the tunes on the first two albums. Despite a decade in the biz, Gano still captures teen angst and frustration better, and more convincingly, than almost anybody. Standouts include “American Music,” the Femme-ization of Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” (with new lyrics by Gano), “Out the Window” (a cheery paean to suicide) and “I’m Free,” a goofy, quasi-religious hymn that celebrates the power of love.
Add It Up is a generous and thoughtful 23-track sampler of the band’s career that includes the expected “hits” as well as gems like “Waiting for the Bus” (a 1981 demo that’s been a staple of the band’s live gigs for years), the leering “36-24-36,” “America Is,” a half-studio, half-live version of “Lies” with Ashwin Batish on sitar and the mysterious “Dance, Motherfucker, Dance!” featuring the Horns of Dilemma.
New Times introduces new drummer Guy Hoffman, formerly of BoDeans and the Oil Tasters, in place of De Lorenzo. With the exception of a compressed, pumped-up drum sound and a couple of keyboard accents, the trio’s spartan style remains the same. Nihilism, wiseass bon mots and hopeless love affairs still churn through Gano’s psyche to emerge as high art and low humor. “Don’t Start Me on the Liquor” is typical folk-rock done Femmes style, “Mirror Mirror (I See a Damsel)” sounds like a Russian polka and “I’m Nothing” is as fine an expression of sputtering youthful rage as the band has ever done. The only anomaly is “Machine,” a sophomoric electronic experiment that doesn’t quite work — although that didn’t stop it from being released on an EP along with a remix, “Chinese Rocks” and a live “Color Me Once.” Following Rock!!!!!, a studio album that didn’t initially find a domestic release, the Femmes issued Viva Wisconsin, a live album recorded on tour in October 1998 in the band’s home state. It includes performances of such classics of the canon as “Blister in the Sun,” “Add It Up” and “Country Death Song” but also such dubious Rock!!!!!s as “Dahmer Is Dead,” a song about the slain-in-prison serial cannibal monster from Milwaukee.
Freak Magnet, on which the Femmes hang their music in thick, hard-rocking sheets of sound rather than on a skeletal acoustic frame, is a strong return to form, albeit one the group had not previously done much with. (“Mosh Pit” is aptly punked up in a much more audible sense than the emotional aggression on which the band was founded.) Released, like Viva Wisconsin, on the independent Beyond label, the album was held up for several years after the band was dropped from its Interscope deal.
Something’s Wrong, available only online, is a collection of outtakes from recent records that also contains demos and studio experiments.
Ritchie’s solo debut (“dedicated to Sun Ra, Son House and my son Silas”) shows off his diverse musical interests, from topical blues to avant-garde exotica and beyond. Joined by various players, he sings and handles guitar, banjo, flute, recorder, accordion and other instruments, leaving most of the bass chores to Cynthia Bartell of Têtes Noires. (He and De Lorenzo had earlier produced her group’s Clay Foot Gods LP.) Not all of the excursions work equally well, but The Blend certainly proves that Ritchie’s talents extend far beyond his role in the Femmes.
Using a wide variety of instruments (from conch and ocarina to bass flute, baritone sax, Arabic tabla and kalimba), Ritchie and his four talented sidemen still manage to sound entirely organic — even a little plain — on Sonic Temple & Court of Babylon. While the folky music has a nice rustic feel, Ritchie’s lyrics are far less friendly. In an artless but adequate voice, he fires off splenetic attacks on Christianity, American mores, capitalism and someone who deceived him, taking time to praise Sun Ra and marvel at life within some Arabic castle. (Imagine the arguments he and Gano must have…)
With the countryfied sarcasm of “Religion Ruined My Life” and the Middle Easternisms of “2 Tongues, 2 Minds,” I See a Noise repeats two of Ritchie’s previous themes, but he applies far more wit, humor and imagination this time. Playing down-to-earth music — an acoustic and electric mix with easy, direct appeal — he offers wry and funny (often autobiographical) commentary on such topics as death, babies and Ernest Hemingway. Easily the best of Ritchie’s albums.
The last Femme to strike out on his own, Victor De Lorenzo sings (sort of), drums, percusses and, for one song, plays guitar and keyboards on Peter Corey Sent Me, an intriguing and thoughtfully artistic effort that resembles the Bonzo Dog Band in dada spirit, if not humor. No two tracks are alike (except perhaps in their literate, idiosyncratic lyrics and eloquently understated execution); the stylistic compote of country, noir jazz, spoken musical comedy, 12-bar African chanting, folk, Talking Headsy rock, continental balladry, etc. unfolds to reveal many delightful surprises.