32 years later I can still vividly remember my first encounter with Violent Femmes. Sitting watching my favourite weekly music show with my mum in the other corner of the living room, the band kick off with a two note bass line played on a freakishly large bass, a simple beat brushed out on a snare and then a skinny little guy in a cheap suit starts off on a whiney confessional that slowly hooks you into something darker…”I started making plans to kill my own kind…”
The song is a scarily convincing portrayal of some backwoods pioneer losing the plot :
“I’m thinking and I’m thinking, till there’s nothing I ain’t thunk,
Breathing in the stink till finally I stunk”
Suffice to say the song does not have a happy ending- the lovely daughter is thrown down the well, and Dad hangs himself in the barn. It’s one of the most unsettling three minutes of television I have seen- a freakish hillbilly fusion of David Lynch, Deliverance and Nick Cave at his darkest. Buying the album a few weeks later I was sucked into a dark and feral world- even the cover is the stuff of nightmares.
The record contains a remarkable breadth of music, from the simple banjo folk of Country death song, through to near evangelical songs about the Lord that seem to be straight up rather than sung with any irony. There are also songs that hark back to the first album, driven by Brian Richie’s pumped up acoustic bass buzzing and rattling along, as Gordon Gano rants like a deranged fire and brimstone preacher.
The main departure from the first album is that some of the best songs really sprawl. Never Tell is quite epic in proportion, and goes through a whole variety of breakdowns and infectious vocal hooks. Brian Ritchie bass playing is a piece of work on this song- bass solos are really not my thing, but the guy hits such a twangy groove that this is quite irresistible. The song has a nasty intimidating edge and the vocal carries real intent- Gordon means it man
From this raging piece we jump straight into a totally straight baptist style hymn, Jesus Walking on the Water. These sudden stylistic shifts are trademark of the album and they really work, taking you on a roller coaster ride of style on content. It is also intriguing to hear musical styles most of us (or even all of us in the UK) would never be exposed to, and you can bet your life no congregation sings them quite like Preacher Gordon.
Another standout track that never gets much of a mention is Sweet Misery Blues. It has wonderfully playful clarinet running all the way through it, but then the lyrics kick off and they are clearly the work of a frustrated, fantasist stalker..
“Yeah I’m gonna corner you in an elevator,
And you won’t be able to put me off till later
I’ll put on my charm,
I’ll tingle your spine,
I’ll take off my charm,
And then you’ll wanna die”
Gano inhabits his character disturbingly well. One of the Femmes’ trademark was the lack of a filter- if Gordon can think it Gordon can sing it. You can’t resist singing along with this pretty little tune, even though you can feel your flesh starting to crawl at the same time.
And then there are just straight up pop gems like I Know it’s True but I’m Sorry to Say which sounds like Sunday Morning or some other early Lou Reed gem.
Side two is dominated by two longer wig outs. Hallowed Ground which has some great piano and more inspired preaching from Gordon is followed by Black Girls. As a fairly repressed English teenager I could not get enough of this gushing rant about the merits of the black girls (and subsequently and slightly more disturbing to my protected teenage ears, black boys)
“I dig the black girls
Oh so much more than the white girls
I was pleased to learn that they are faster
So guess, guess, guess just who I’m after!”
The song is a complete riot, with a fantastic horn breakdown from the magnificently named Horns of Dilemma and a frenetic drum solo. This album introduced to so many musical tricks that had supposedly been stamped out by punk, but here had new life breathed right back into them.
So is this album as good as the more often celebrated debut album? Being objective it probably isn’t but then neither was much else in the next ten years! The first album is one the best collection of teen angst anthems ever put together- completely distinctive and stuffed to the gill with incredible hooks, glorious bass lines, singalong choruses and finally ditching rock n rolls long history of double entendres for some straight talking sexual frustration. Hallowed Ground is a very different beast. The music is more complex and varied, as are the lyrical themes, and the band play out of their skins showing telepathic understanding and great dynamics throughout. The track listing keeps you on your toes so you never settle into one groove, and it is all the better for it. So sit back and take a walk on the dark side.