Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes

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1. I guess the cover might depicting voyeurism, but regardless if that’s true, this is one of those music to album cover mismatches if I’ve ever seen one.

2. RollingStone-journalist-turned-huge-playboy Neil Strauss had this hilarious tidbit to offer regarding the first times he ever masturbated, “Outside of sweat and tears, I’d never known my body to make a product that wasn’t waste. I was proud. I was an adult now.” I sort of felt the same way the first few times. Not so much anymore. The same goes for this record; the first few songs are a sort of dirty pleasure. After that? …

3. For the record, I think this record is solid, though its current acclaim speaks to how much people are willing to emphasize uniqueness (they were there first-ness) over actual songwriting merit. If you want teenage angst, I could point you towards numerous avenues in the 90’s (most of whom I don’t even like all that much!) that had much more scope than Violent Femmes, either because the band’s musicianship starts and ends with “We play acoustic guitars” or because Gordon Gano’s list of subject matter starts and ends with “masturbation.” Need more proof of their limitedness? allmusic pegs them down to a single “artist theme”: “Jealousy.” I remember dealing with jealousy when I was in high school. I also remember dealing with a great deal else.

4. I found myself at a cottage just this weekend prior and at one point, a group of us sat outside and one guy was playing some bluesy tunes on the acoustic guitar, though when I said “Play something that everybody knows so that we can sing along to it,” he admitted that he couldn’t, so I requested “That one by Violent Femmes?” and he raised an eyebrow. I proceeded to commandeer the guitar and began playing that unmistakable riff and tapped the guitar to produce that drum fill. He got it immediately and took it back and started playing it, and everyone started singing along joyfully; whispering and shouting long when appropriate.

Later, someone who wasn’t there originally remarked that he heard us playing that “Really shitty song” and he parodied a bit of it and laughed to himself. I wanted to rebuttal but really couldn’t be bothered, but to be honest, any song that makes a memorable riff out of four notes, a memorable verse out of two chords and a memorable chorus out of three chords gets an A+ in my book. The lyrics themselves are barely part of it, although I suppose people might get a laugh out of “Body beats, I thirty my sheets, I don’t even know why” (although twenty years later, I’m not sure such a line holds up: most people discover masturbation from word-of-mouth before their bodies are mature enough to have wet dreams). The infinitely funnier line is “Big hands, I know you’re the one” which reminds me of the Who’s “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” as in choosing a girl based on her handjob-giving merits. Oh, and the explosion back to the chorus after a period of steadily and slowly decreasing volume is all sorts of fun to shout alongside to.

5. Steve Huey (of allmusic) gives “Kiss Off” quite a bit of (well-deserved) praise, ”’Kiss Off’ by turns funny, playful, vulnerable, heartbreaking, combative, furious, self-conscious, despairing, hopeful, and hopeless. It’s no mean feat to wedge such emotional complexity into a song less than three minutes long, especially a song with one, maybe two sections that might be considered verses,” but Gordon Gano’s “I hope you know this will go down in your permanent record” is an extremely awkward sounding line (especially the way he delivers it). I don’t mind it too much, probably because it’s sandwiched between the Violent Femmes’ loveable amateur quality right before it (it essentially sounds like someone pulled the acoustic string as far back as it went and released it, giving it a sharp twang that you would only find here, at the 0:25 mark) and the immediately followed “Oh yeah? Oh yeah!” That being said, it has more to do with the greater sandwich of the “I need someone who’d care to love / Could it be you? Could it be you-hoo?” (vulnerable and melodic) in the song’s opening verse and the wonderful “count-up” section (I know all the words. Because it’s fucking fantastic). There’s something loveable about the grammatical atrocity of “Five, five, five for my lonely”; the way he stutters through “Seven, seven, n-n-n-no tomorrow!”; the extremely human aspect of “Eight, eight, I forgot what eight was for!”; the religion-has-failed-me, “Nine, nine, nine for my lost God” and the way he yells out “Ten, ten, ten, ten, EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING.” So yeah, a car ride that starts off great and ends great but a little bumpy in between. And that’s all without mentioning the great hook that the chorus sports, “Do it all the time (YEAH! YEAH!).” the middle, but who cares, because it’s great.

6. The rest? Well, forgive me if I don’t think any of the rest of these songs deserve their own paragraphs. Steve Huey notes that “Even if the songwriting slips a bit on occasion,” which it does, “Gano’s personality keeps the music engaging and compelling without overindulging in his seemingly willful naiveté,” which it doesn’t. Gano’s greatest strength actually isn’t his lyrics, which remind me of a friend I used to have who only spoke about the same subject matter (sex) and it was impossible to carry a substantial conversation with him. No, Gano’s strength is in his ability to write a catchy hook, which is what most of these songs ride on. Furthermore, it’s rather unfortunate that he steals all the attention, because the band’s greatest asset is Brian Ritchie, whose melodic basslines are everywhere on the album (for example, listen to what it’s doing on “Blister in the Sun”).

7. The two songs that follow the wonderful 1-2-punch basically speak to the fact that these guys had no business in writing songs over the 4-minute mark. As endearing as some people might find it, I find Gano’s “BYE BYE BYE”‘s on “Please Do Not Go” to be something of an annoyance, while “Add It Up” has an intro that does not belong in the track at all. Meanwhile, Gano’s lyrics might cover an array of emotions described earlier, but nowhere in that long list is self-awareness. “Why can’t I get just one kiss/screw/fuck?” he asks repeatedly, and concludes, “But something won’t let me make love to you” and “I guess it’s something to do with luck.” No, it isn’t. It’s you. Also, the “ma-mama, mama-mo-ma-mum”‘s remind me of the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.” Or at least Peter Griffin’s cover of it.

8. In comparison, “Confessions” does alright because it’s essentially two songs squished together with a clear break at the 3:48 mark to separate the two. “Prove My Love” and “Promise” are essentially punk songs thrown onto Violent Femmes’ template and “Gone Daddy Gone” (later covered by Gnarls Barkley) and “Good Feeling” are only at all noticeable because they throw additional instruments into the mix. Also, the stutters that I found so endearing on “Kiss Off” (also heard briefly during the whispered section of “Blister in the Sun”) can be heard throughout the rest of the album, and each time becomes a point of diminishing marginal utility.

9. I remember masturbating taking up a great deal of my time in my teenage life (ah, who am I kidding? My adult life too). I also remember dealing with a great deal else. Too bad this album pretends that there isn’t a world outside of multiple tabs and used tissues.

B+

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