Violent Femmes – Why Do Birds Sing?

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Violent Femmes are almost certainly underrated, but not by much. They could have arguably rivaled the Replacements, but the songwriting simply wasn’t consistent enough. I’ve never heard Hallowed Ground, but if nothing else it speaks to Gordon Gano’s lyrical flexibility and the band’s more-expansive-than-you-might-think musical heritage. The Blind Leading the Naked was decent but not a keeper, and 3 was a bit of a dud. Along the way, they created memorable and fun songs. Why Do Birds Sing? is worthy of being in my collection, and I sort of stopped after that. Gano and Brian Ritchie have endured acrimony and lawsuits but still play together.

What I Think of This Album

This is a strong Femmes album, obviously not rising to the heights of the inimitable debut, but still bursting with wit, originality, and energy.

Few bands would put together a folky and upbeat celebration of suicide like “Out the Window,” nor would any other band decide to update both Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and an Elizabethan era poem (“Hey Nonny Nonny”) on the same album (or even, during the same career). Several songs appear to resurrect the ghost of the first album. The silly “Girl Trouble” (“Have mercy on me / I’ve got girl trouble . . . up the ASS”) effectively hearkens back to the debut, as does the conflicted and bitter “He Likes Me.”

The spare “Flamingo Baby” transforms from romantic to horny to bitter to resolute, while “Lack of Knowledge” is a misfire that certainly wouldn’t have made the cut in 1983. Unexpectedly, the thick, almost sludgy, “Life Is a Scream” is as conventionally punk as I’ve ever heard the band (though the wah-wah bass does break the mold). On the other end of the spectrum, hit “American Music” is a shiny and robustly arranged pop song that avoids any charges of selling out, because the sincere lyrics are still from the confused, messed-up, frustrated, self-hating point of view of the same teenage malcontent from eight years earlier.

Gano resurrects his spiritual concerns on the unobtrusive and light-hearted “I’m Free.” There is a touching vulnerability to “Used to Be,” though some may find it maudlin. Whatever. Fuck them. On everything but “American Music,” the band deftly adds subtle enhancements to their mostly acoustic-and-snare setup (I do like that drummer Victor DeLorenzo gets a “cymbal” credit on one song), with bassist Brian Ritchie doing his masterful best on bouzouki, glockenspiel, didgeridoo, ukelele, banjo, and jaw harp.

The Best Thing About This Album

“American Music” was intended to be the hit, and I will comply.

Release Date

April, 1991

The Cover Art

It’s amusing. The intermingling of the title and band name, with the different fonts and colors, is difficult to read.

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