Monday, April 17, 2006

Classic Album Corner

Welcome to a new feature, Classic Album Corner! Here, I’ll periodically review a classic album from my collection. You might be very familiar with it, or you might not. My sincere hope is that you’ll either check it out, or simply be inspired to revisit it’s brilliance.

This week: Violent Femmes (1983) [Slash Records]
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The self-titled debut from the unique Milwaukee trio is one of those records you just didn’t hear on the radio upon it’s release in 1983. The pop charts at the time were dominated by a combination of watered down techno-pop and cheesy soft rock ballads, and even the “progressive, new music” radio station in my area, the legendary WLIR, didn’t play it. From what I understand, it did get a little more play in the Midwest at the time, but the record was by no means anything more than an underground Indie cult thing. Eventually, after ten years, it finally went platinum, but there was that wonderful period when you were listening to this, and felt it was something nobody else really knew about.

Fortunately for me, I was a subscriber to the late, great alternative-before-there-was-such-a-thing-magazine, Trouser Press. TP highlighted the band, reviewed the record, and gave an impressionable young music freak like me enough juice to go out and buy the record without hearing it. That distinction has only been bestowed on a select few releases over the years, and more often than not the leap of faith was completely justified.

Upon first listen, you discover Violent Femmes is unlike anything you’ve heard before. The instrumentation is simple: your basic guitar, drums, bass (acoustic), with occasional oddities (xylophone) thrown in. Well, there is a trancephone, which is a snare drum covered with a wash basin too. Lead singer and songwriter Gordon Gano’s whiny adolescent vocals, which at times are barely above a whisper, coupled with his angst-ridden lyrics, provide an amazing listen. Let’s break it down track by track.

“Blister In The Sun” – Probably the most well known track on the album, featured in numerous movie soundtracks. A perfect way to kick things off, with a simple guitar, drum riff, and the first exposure to Gano’s pleading vocal. Probably could have been a huge hit, but for the “stain my sheets” line, which sent radio programmers screaming. An instant classic, and the perfect opener .

“Kiss Off” - Starts off much darker than the bouncy, upbeat first cut. Now we can hear Gano’s anger, but it is a nice rallying cry, and a big middle finger to all those who wronged him in the past.

“Please Do Not Go” - Reggae tinged song, describing a boy madly crazy about a lovely girl who doesn’t return his affections. A universal theme, done many times before, true, but the acoustic bass work of Ritchie, along with Gano’s attempt to affect a Jamaican accent, makes it a memorable track.

“Add It Up” – Now we’re into some heavy duty stuff. Listening to this song is like eavesdropping on a three minute therapy session, and upon my first listen I said, out loud, “Whoa, what the hell is this?” It starts with Gano singing a capella, then a pause, then the charging, angry instruments kick in and we’re off thru the rantings of what at first seems like another average horny teenager (“why can’t I get; just one kiss/screw/f*ck / guess it’s got something to do with luck”), but by the second verse it moves into an Oedipal rant about guns, and eventually, lust for his mother. Wow. At this point the radio programmers heads exploded. Best heard at higher volume.

“Confessions” – Slowing down after the fire we just heard, this ended up not being one of my favorites. Loneliness, apathy, and revenge are some of the emotions explored here. The music is sketchy, slightly off, and edgy, which matches the vocal and lyrics.

“Prove My Love” - Ah, back to the bouncy numbers! Awesome, optimistic(!) tune about the hopefulness surrounding a new relationship. Gano desperately wonders what he needs to do to prove his love, pleading to find out what will seal the deal. Yes, it was bad recently, he says, but there is hope! Thematically out of place on this album, but enjoyable nonetheless. (Unless he is stalking the girl, then I’m completely wrong and all bets are off.)

“Promise” – Starts off as an uptempo rocker, and is another therapy-like session set to music. First, Gano is talking to the girl (though one can imagine he is simply talking to a mirror while pretending to speak to her), and all but calls begs her for some kind of sign she even knows he exists. The middle section delves into self-inspection (“Do you know what it’s like to hate?”), self-loathing, and self-destruction. Dance!

“To The Kill” - Four minutes of almost weary, disconnected angst. Gano describes how he wasted his time, kicked it around, got taken for a ride by a girl who stole his money and went to Chicago, and begs for release. Is he asking the girl to finish him off already, having ruined his life enough already?

“Gone Daddy Gone” – This was the single! They made a video and everything, and if you were really lucky you could see it on MTV one of the eight times they showed it. In a perfect world, this would have been a huge hit, and I remain convinced that, had it received any shred of airplay on mainstream radio, it would’ve been. The xylophone kicks it off, and in an age where it almost seemed like the synthysizer was going to replace the guitar, this was a refreshing change. Upbeat despite the constant reminder that “the love is gone..”, if this doesn’t at least perk your ears up upon the first listen, you have no pulse. An instant classic.

“Good Feeling” – Not afraid to show a tender side after 30 plus minutes of unleashing angst, the Femmes close the record with a beautiful ballad. A piano and violin are added to the lineup, and Gano pours his heart out, asking that the elusive feeling of love he is experiencing stay with him, just a little longer. A poignant, serene way to send the listener away.

CD only – these next two songs were left off the original album release, and were available as an import single the following spring. They were subsequently added to the CD release, and from the sound of them it appears they were written and recorded around the same time as the rest of the album.

“Ugly” – A nice, trashy throwaway tune. Sounds like the band had fun with it, but you can understand why it was left off the record. Short, loud, and great.

“Gimme The Car” – A little darker than “Ugly”, but still sounds kind of unfinished. In a nutshell, Gano is asking Dad to borrow the wheels so he can screw his girlfriend. Typical teenage fare, right? But, as with the other songs, the longer the song goes on, the more layers of anger/longing/desperation unfold. The singer feels like his time is running out, and speaks of doing whatever it takes to accomplish his goal of getting laid. Eventually it turns into his only way of validating and erasing his own personal pain. Pretty heady stuff for a 19 year old, yet typically na├»ve enough to think that one thing (sex) will fix all of life’s problems.

The band underwent changes in subsequent years, expanding their musical horizons, thus never allowing themselves to be pigeonholed. Knowing that making Violent Femmes II would be a huge mistake, the follow up, Hallowed Ground, went off in a totally different direction, exploring Gano’s fascination with religious themes and gospel sounds. Later releases showed them fleshing out their sound and returning to their rock roots. This remains their most popular release, and with good reason. You should check it out, now.