Before the Violent Femmes, few rock music fans had had the opportunity to see how much the use of acoustic instruments and a stripped-down approach could convey urgency and raw emotion. After the beloved cult band's emergence, no one even tried to imitate the legendary post-punk/college rock genius of the group, perhaps knowing fully that such a response would be futile given the originality on display. Here's a chronological look at nine of the Femmes' best ragged, uncensored and generally peerless explorations of angst and confusion, which highly influenced the burst of alternative music to come.
Although it could be said that this song has become a bit overrated and overplayed through the years (including some disconcerting forays into TV advertising), its infectious, jittery brilliance simply cannot be denied. As the opening track on the Violent Femmes' eponymous 1983 debut, this tune introduced the band's famous minimalism but also its uncontrollable sense of urgency and immediacy. Very few songs from the '80s or any other era sport as many intensely recognizable sound clips as are found here, from the acoustic guitar opening riff to the double-barreled, repeated drum beat immediately following it. The whispered section near the end is also a highlight, as well as a crystallization of the band's embrace of acoustic chaos.
2. "Kiss Off"
Perhaps the best if not the most famous of the Violent Femmes' legendary angst-ridden anthems, this song also etched some unforgettable lyrics into the '80s pantheon, particularly this nugget, perfectly and unsettlingly delivered by frontman Gordon Gano: "I hope you know... that this will go down on your permanent record." Unlike "Blister in the Sun," this tune is about something very specific and easily understood by the band's target audience, and unfortunately the mirror of reality has transformed the concept into something even darker in an age of concentrated bullying. With the arrival of the Femmes, alienation was not just for geeks anymore. Still, the popular crowd could never fully embody this kind of earnest suffering.
3. "Add It Up"
Of the band's holy trinity of signature tunes, this one usually generates the most attention, probably mostly because of its thick sexual tension that builds up to repeated usage of the cardinal profanity known affectionately as the mighty F bomb. But there's so much more going on here than the mere shattering of language taboos on record. For one, musically, the trio of Gano on guitar, Brian Ritchie on bass and Victor DeLorenzo on drums absolutely scorches its way through a very memorable and powerful rhythmic workout. But in addition, the song's less famous middle section seems to foretell of Columbine-like events with a highly affecting, creepy vibe. Once again, the Femmes simultaneously see in fine detail the future as well as the past.
Where else within the otherwise plenty wide, varied spectrum of '80s music could an arrangement of xylophone music be found than in the catalogue of the Violent Femmes? In fact, how many of us have even seen a xylophone in person since grade school? Anyway, none of this matters in the face of this great American band's limitless sense of daring. Behind all this loopy majesty, of course, lurks another of Gano's deeply cutting lyrics, this time of a highly personal nature. The "Beautiful girl, love the dress, high school smile, oh yes" opening perfectly conveys the duality and confusion of sexual awakening, especially in light of American culture's occasional and oddly puritanical flashes.
Here's one of the Femmes' few songs that actually acknowledges something positive, even if it does so merely to spotlight the fleeting nature of happiness in Gano's typical worldview. More than that, the song forces the listener to appreciate in an appropriate measure the unique, heartbreaking and beautiful nature of Gano's vocal timbre. For Gano, it's rarely about pitch or technical prowess, but the richness of his baritone coupled with the emotion he conveys in higher tones simply has no peer in '80s music. Only a singer as unique perhaps as Rufus Wainwright echoes the wonderful strangeness of Gano's work here.
Although it may seem like a departure from the template established on the Femmes' first album, this song actually should come as no surprise. After all, its haunting, jarring tale of familial murder operates within the same dark and gothic universe that fueled the angst-ridden anthems on the group's debut opus Violent Femmes. I mean, the narrators of "Gimme the Car" or "Add It Up" are constantly within inches of insanity and committing murder themselves, so the trip to the finality of this tune was not a long one for Gano. Also, musically, it's not country at all but acoustic folk-punk with a banjo, a classic Femmes move to its core.
In a deliciously twisted sort of way, the Femmes' first outright glimmer of gospel here somehow serves as a perfect accompaniment or even a companion piece for "Country Death Song." Gano has clearly always had some underlying conflict between his strict religious upbringing and the angst and sexual frustration that drive his songwriting outlet, so I guess it's interesting and surprising to find that this song never strays into dark, disturbed territory and instead comes off as a relatively straightforward if decidedly off-kilter celebration of Christ's love. Nonetheless, the track's hillbilly shuffle is both convincing and unsettling in its intensity.
After the brief departure of 1984's Hallowed Ground, Gano & Co. found their way back to the land of sexual confusion quite easily on their 1986 release, The Blind Leading the Naked. Complete with horns and a rousing rock and roll attack, this song showcases Gano in typically distraught form, recalling a gender-ambiguous sexual encounter that may or not have happened in the way he relates. There's not quite the sense of danger here as there is in some of the band's earlier efforts, as a more mature but still troubled rumination takes over. Nonetheless, it's a singular and memorable effort still.