Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Undeniably the first alternative music I ever heard, the first Violent Femmes album was both inescapable and elusive. I turned eleven years old in 1983, finished fifth grade and started sixth. I can’t say exactly when I first heard this, but it was definitely by seventh grade. I remember hearing the three big songs from this album often in middle school. But as popular as “the Femmes” (as we referred to them, pretending to know more than we did) seemed to be, I never heard these songs on the radio. I only heard their music when some other kid shared it, and I didn’t understand where it came from or how my classmates knew about it but I didn’t. It was truly an underground, cult phenomenon and I was present for it in real time, even if I didn’t realize or understand it. Looking back now, I can only hope that my peers learned of this from older siblings; not all of them could have been plugged in to this obscure Milwaukee band in the sixth grade.

What I Think of This Album

This album is the sound of the amygdala achieving complete and total domination. Possibly the purest musical document in existence of teenage emotion, Violent Femmes is a deserved classic. Gordon Gano relies on a combination of unvarnished but exquisite pathos and unexpected ethos, each one amplifying the other, and he leaves logos completely behind (or perhaps never even considered it).

With each of his sincere, funny, and direct expressions of frustration, lust, anger, displacement, sorrow, fear, and confusion, Gano gains more and more credibility as a chronicler of the urgent and powerful inner life of near-adults (and those of us never-adults). The anguish that accompanies his “How can I explain personal pain? / My voice is in vain” is precisely how he succeeds in explaining his (and therefore, our) turmoil.

Gano wrote most of these songs while still in high school, and he displays a remarkable talent for synthesizing and communicating the teenage experience. “Kiss Off” is the embittered, defensive cry of the outsider; starting quietly, almost dangerously, Gano gets more impassioned as he unleashes his adenoidal whine during the chorus. The tension returns with the infamous count-up (with the hilarious – and utterly genius – “I forget what 8 was for”), which explodes into the frustrated culmination of everything that is wrong . . . which from Gano’s perspective is exactly and precisely “Everything! / Everything! / Everything! / Everything!” But don’t forget the faux-tough sneer in response to what sounds like school discipline – the song pinballs from one emotion to another, trapping the listener in the same whirlwind which surrounds Gano’s narrator.

Comparatively, “Blister In the Sun” seems overly simplistic – which is the point, as Gano gives over, and gives voice, to his id. Openly discussing being high, staining his sheets, and checking you out, Gano yearns for release and freedom. The other big cult hit was the randy “Add It Up,” a stunning declaration of sexual frustration, going so far as to suggest that the consequence of unsatisfied horniness might be murderous violence or, chillingly, suicide.

The rest of the album contains additional riches and surprises. “Gone Daddy Gone” features bassist Brian Ritchie playing an incongruous but impressive xylophone while Gano updates Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” not the first indication on the album that there was more to this band than met the eye. The bluesy “Confessions” likewise indicated that the band’s Americana roots extended beyond folk, and draws a line from the traditionally plaintive lyrics of blues performers to Gano’s modern problems.

“Prove My Love” takes the rhythm of “Add It Up” and supercharges it to provide the backdrop to Gano’s bewildered frustration, which is delivered in a sort of rockabilly/doo-wop fashion. Perhaps in a nod to the Ramones (who in turn were bowing to Herman’s Hermits), Gano deadpans “Third verse / Same as the first.”

The intro of “Promise” sounds a lot like the Cure’s “Jumping Someone Else’s Train” but this exposed nerve of a song is otherwise its own disturbing creation. Some people may be turned off by the exaggerated whininess of “Please Do Not Go” – which is probably as close to an example of a song Buddy Holly would have released in 1983 as you’re going to get – but the uncontained sadness, shock, and confusion behind Gano’s lyrics is endearing and universal.

With all this buildup, it is a genuine surprise when Gano turns in a subdued and vulnerable performance on “Good Feeling,” which acts as a gentle and wholly unexpected closer to the original album. My CD adds the irresistibly poppy and mean-spirited “Ugly” and the hilariously desperate and carnal “Gimme the Car.”

Throughout, the music is playful and skilled. Make no mistake:  Ritchie was a virtuoso bassist, even at this young age, with impressive runs and busy lines on his acoustic, and Gano played an effective guitar, as well as violin on “Gone Daddy Gone” and “Good Feelings.” The ramshackle acoustic-punk sounded shabbier than it was, even as it served as a distinctive calling card.

As a testament to its slow word-of-mouth popularity, it took four years for the album to go gold and another four to hit platinum.

The Best Thing About This Album

Gano’s lyrics and vocal delivery.

Release Date

April, 1983

The Cover Art

I always thought this was some urchin in like, 1960s Ireland, but it turns out it was from 1980s Laurel Canyon. The image nicely speaks to the idea that the music inside is something to be discovered, away from the eyes of parents.

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