Friday, January 28, 2005

Violent Femmes: A Second Look

I mentioned earlier that many Advanced artists go through religious phases that are considered wacky. Well, with that in mind, read this amusing article about the Violent Femmes' second album, "Hallowed Ground." It's by David M. Goldstein, and it can be found at

General indie-knowledge would seem to dictate that in their 20 years of existence, The Violent Femmes have one very good debut album to their name, followed by a bunch of faceless mediocrity. The late music critic Bill Wyman even once went as far to describe the majority of their back catalogue as “not so much unlistenable, as simply devoid of reasons to listen.” With all due respect to Mr. Wyman, both he, and general indie-knowledge, are wrong. The Violent Femmes’ self-titled 1983 debut is practically flawless, while it’s follow-up, Hallowed Ground, is simply very good. And while I agree that its mostly all downhill from there, concurrent Femmes albums contain just enough high school mix-tape worthy tracks (e.g. “American Music”, “I Held Her In My Arms”) to justify both the release of their 1993 hits compilation as well as their seemingly everlasting status as the band to rock your college Spring Fest.

But let’s get back to that second album now, shall we? The new Liars album notwithstanding, I can’t think of a sophomore album so designed as to alienate and confuse an established fanbase as Hallowed Ground. The difference being, I suppose, that Hallowed Ground is actually quite good, if sounding completely unlike the band responsible for releasing “Blister in the Sun” and “Kiss Off” a mere year earlier.

...So Hallowed Ground comes out in 1984, and I can’t blame anyone for hoping that it would contain more of the lonely sexual frustration that made the previous year’s record so great. Denied! Barring “Black Girls” and the stalker anthem “Sweet Misery Blues,” there’s nary any sexual frustration to be found here, that is unless said frustration stems from the inability of the Lord Jesus Christ to answer your prayers. Although I’m sure that a few owners of the Femmes’ debut record were vaguely aware of the fact that frontman Gordon Gano was a devout Christian, there’s no way anybody could have predicted the extent to which this would manifest itself on Hallowed Ground.

Gano makes some sort of reference to God in nearly every song, sings about Noah’s Ark, and even quotes the bible before proceeding with the lurching title track; an eerie nuclear war screed that sounds alarmingly prescient today. The depravity peaks with “Jesus Walking On the Water;” a fiddle laden slab of gospel punk so incredibly over the top that it was construed as parody upon release (as were most of these songs). Whereas the Violent Femmes’ debut album was rife with sarcastic wit, Hallowed Ground is a dark slab of gothic Americana; not unlike Johnny Cash, recent Bright Eyes, or 16 Horsepower (whose Gano loves so much that he demanded to play fiddle on their first record).

Hallowed Ground was a striking reversal to the idea of the Femmes becoming a major draw, and the band themselves admits that from a commercial standpoint, they’ve never fully recovered from its release. As such, I’m guessing that it’s far easier to appreciate its brilliance now as opposed to 20 years ago when it was being directly compared to the relatively light-weight album that preceded it. The quality of the songwriting equals, and sometimes surpasses, that of their debut, and tracks such as “I Hear the Rain” and “Never Tell” contain degrees of menace that few thought this band capable of. The latter is a long time favorite of many Femmes’ fans, being a multi-part seven minute epic which climaxes with Gano screaming about how he “STOOD RIGHT UP IN THE HEART OF HELL!!!” Not only does this scare the crap out of fair-weather fans when the Femmes play it at their live shows, but it earns extra points for being in D-minor, the saddest of all keys.

In addition to the darker tone, another significant difference between Hallowed Ground and the first Violent Femmes record is Hallowed Ground’s heavier instrumentation and utilization of guest musicians on a handful of tracks. You can hear this on opener “Country Death Song;” a Femmes classic driven by Tony Trischka’s banjo that somehow manages to make killing your children kind of funny. There’s some sleazy clarinet on the suitably sleazy “Sweet Misery Blues,” and the free jazz (you heard right) portion of “Black Girls” prominently showcases the “Horns of Dilemma” brass that would surface on later Femmes albums, as well as the alto-sax of none other than John Zorn. The latter song is basically about how Gano digs “the black girls oh so much more than the white girls,” and makes reference to a “faggot white boy.” This being Hallowed Ground however, such blasphemous remarks are quickly subsumed by Gano’s shout out to “the Lord of Hosts, Father, Son and the Holy Ghost” after the drum solo. Righteous!

...It’s unquestionable that The Violent Femmes threw their fans a serious curveball with Hallowed Ground, but it’s hard not to appreciate a band so determined not to repeat themselves, even at the expense of losing a serious segment of their fanbase. And if you really want to get into some speculation, you can imagine what the Femmes’ career would have been like had the record been released before their debut seeing as the songs for both were written concurrently. Hallowed Ground is probably doomed to history as the weird sophomore record that ruined the Violent Femmes’ chances at becoming indie-superstars, but it’s really due for a re-evaluation, especially in light of the recent success of the backwoods emo sounds being pushed by the Saddle Creek label. While it's hardly what I’d call an uplifting listen, it’s never less than intriguing, and deserves far more recognition than it’s gotten over the years.
Couldn't have said it better myself.

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