For your reappraisal: Violent Femmes - 'Hallowed Ground'
The first time I ever heard ‘Blister in the Sun’ was on the radio while my dad was driving me to school. I was 14 and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before.
That infectious opening guitar riff, drums that got your hands itching to clap, the whiny chorus just begging you to sing along. Everything about it spoke deeply to all that teenage angst I had pent up inside, desperately looking for an outlet.
Let me go onnnnnnnn… like a blister in the sun!
And with that stomach-churning imagery, Violent Femmes helped usher in my teenage dirtbag era.
Over the years I learned that Violent Femmes were something of a cultural phenomenon across the United States, one of those slow burn kind of bands whose notoriety was built through the sharing of mixtapes and house party playlists.
One of the most remarkable things about the folk punk trio is how what was essentially a high school garage band from Milwaukee managed to leave their grubby fingerprints all over pop culture.
Their stripped down sound influenced bands like the Pixies and The Smiths. Gnarls Barkley even covered their song 'Gone Daddy Gone' in 2006. Their songs also made it to the screen – featured in cult classics like Reality Bites, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Crow.
Today the band’s 1983 self-titled LP is hailed as one of the greatest debut albums of all time (even Rolling Stone put it on their top 100). A sleeper hit, the record took five years to go gold and another four years to go platinum – all before ever hitting the Billboard Top 200.
There is not a single track that’s skippable – from the strangely uplifting song about offing yourself to spite others 'Kiss Off' (with a killer bass riff from Brian Ritchie) to the simple and sweet ballad 'Good Feeling' (in Gordon Gano’s characteristic whine) to the desperately horny 'Add It Up' (its frantic pace held up by Victor DeLorenzo’s drums). The entire tracklist brims with the bad attitude of a misunderstood teenager and you know what? I STILL LOVE IT.
It’s the perfect album to listen to on a road trip, drumming on the steering wheel and wailing at the top of your lungs out the rolled-down window.
But wait, you ask, isn’t this a column about underrated albums? Ok, you got me. While I do believe that Violent Femmes (the band) deserve more recognition in mainstream circles, it’s hard to say 'Violent Femmes' (the album) is underrated at this point.
I still want to mention it, though, because if you’ve never heard of them, I’d recommend starting there – it’s got a certain magical spark that none of their subsequent albums ever managed to reproduce.
But if we’re talking about albums that should be given a second chance, let’s talk about their second album, which has remained one of the most misunderstood records in their discography.
I’ll be the first to admit that 'Hallowed Ground,' which was released just a year after the Violent Femmes’ debut LP, was not my favourite when I discovered it. The religious undertones were off-putting (there’s a song called 'Jesus Walking On the Water') and the darker tone was a far-cry from the raucous fun of their first album.
But here I am, in my 30s, giving it another shot. So, was I wrong all those years ago?
If we’re being honest, it will never reach the same icon status of the self-titled LP and some of the tracks have aged like milk ('Black Girls' is particularly problematic, and don’t come at me with the “anti-political correctness anthem” argument).
But overall, 'Hallowed Ground' is a much better album than most people give it credit for.
Musically, it’s more diverse than 'Violent Femmes,' making it feel less cohesive at the outset but more interesting the more you listen to it. The Femmes explore a huge range of styles, from country to folk to gospel to blues, bringing in new instruments like the banjo, piano, saxophone and marimba.
The tone also feels decidedly more grown up than its predecessor. Even though Gano wrote the songs around the same time, ‘Hallowed Ground’ addresses darker themes like poverty, apocalypse, religion and murder. I will say, however, it’s also decidedly less fun to sing along to. Can’t have it all, I guess.
The opening track, 'Country Death Song,' is one of the grimmest songs in the band’s repertoire, a first-person account of a farmer in the American Civil War who loses his mind and throws his daughter down a well. Plagued by guilt, he later kills himself. Based on a true story, the murder ballad is a chilling gothic snapshot held together by Gano’s folksy storytelling and a jangly banjo, a real gem that’s moved from the sophomore slump and into the Femmes’ Best-Of.
Other standout tracks for me include 'Never Tell,' an evolved version of 'To The Kill' from the self-titled LP, which Gano charismatically carries for over 7 minutes. Also the moody title track, which starts with a spoken-word Bible quote (Gano’s father was a Baptist minister) before delving into a contemplation of nuclear holocaust.
My personal favourite is 'Sweet Misery Blues,' a light and twangy folk punk ditty that reminds the listener not to dwell on the past. It’s a much needed feel-good reprieve in what turns out to be a roller coaster of an album.
For a band like Violent Femmes, which for 40 years has been seen as something of a one-trick pony or the musical equivalent of “Catcher in the Rye”, ‘Hallowed Ground’ is a giant middle finger to the music industry and listeners of music in general. It’s a defiant testament to the band’s refusal to do what’s expected of them.
Bassist Brian Ritchie put it best in a 2014 interview with The Guardian: “The Femmes have always been about the music. Gordon never cared about being famous. The key to longevity is to doggedly pursue your ideas to their conclusion.”
And you can say what you want about ‘Hallowed Ground’ but it is nothing if not the Femmes’ wildest ideas doggedly pursued to their conclusion. It may not match the cult status that ‘Violent Femmes’ has ascended to, but it stands the test of time in a way that its predecessor perhaps does not.