Saturday, June 18, 2011

40 Songs, 40 Days (2011 Edition), Day Sixteen: Confessions by Violent Femmes

This is an odd fish--it's a live recording from the Minnesota band Violent Femmes, a band that could only have been successful during the height of what was--in retrospect--laughably called 'alternative music' in the '80's.

For those of you who weren't there, 'alternative music' was the catch-all label given to a rather eclectic variety of music that sprung up as a reaction to the punk/hardcore movements of the late 70's. Still embracing the DIY esthetics of punk while also hewing closer to a more melodic, less confrontation model of popular music, the alternative scene was surprisingly inclusive. When I was going to Hunter College, I listened to WLIR, a small alternative music station out of Long Island, and they happily played the colorful gender-bending pop of Culture Club shoulder to shoulder with the just-now-discovering-their-power-pop-muscles of The Replacements and the electro-pop incarnation of Ministry. Oh, and these guys.

The Violent Femmes represent a corner of the alternative music neighborhood that seemed truly...disturbed without being aggressive. Along with Wall of Voodoo (and later, the solo work of Stan Ridgway), The Soft Boys (and later, the solo work of Robyn Hitchcock), The Bad Seeds, and early Talking Heads, this trio seemed to delight in wallowing very quietly in the thoughts of the borderline insane. The people given voice by vocalist Gordan Gano weren't well--Hell, in many cases they were one step away from suicide ('Kiss Off,' the song the bootleg this song came from is named after, is an angry, defiant suicide note in musical form) or murder. Gano's voice, perpetually hoarse and reedy, never quite in tune, frequently cracking, is the voice of every serial killer who's ever haunted your dreams.

I should prolly talk about the song itself, huh?

It's proof of what I've been saying...the ramblings of a man driven so insane by his isolation that he's about to do something truly terrible. What we don't know--there's lots of references to Gano's character hacking, fighting and crawling away to die, but never anything concrete. But the way he spells it out to us makes it clear that when he's done, the floor will be red with blood and the air will be thick with screams. And the way Gano, in his signature croak, explains it all, quietly and deliberately (even at the moment you expect him to start ranting, his voice is extremely composed) makes it all the more creepy. That bassist Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor deLorenzo take their cues from Gano, keeping the melody similarly subdued, only adds to the impact. Hell, the only people who really get to cut loose are The Horns of Dilemma, the horns section that were the Femmes' frequent collaborators--and because they're outsiders, their crazy honking works.

The Femmes have disintegrated, in part due to a legal battle between Gano and Ritchie over music rights, but their uniqueness should never be overlooked. Yes, that same sort of melodic grand guignol tradition they championed has been carried forward by people like The Decemberists--but I'm never as scared of Colin Meloy as I once was of Gano.

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