Yep, it’s been over a decade since the Violent Femmes put out a record worth getting excited about. Yep, you can make a pretty good case that they should have broken up the minute founding drummer Victor DeLorenzo walked out the door. Yep, 2000’s live record, Viva Wisconsin, served largely to chronicle just how far a previously incredible live band had fallen.
But just when it seemed like the Wisconsin trio were ready to completely destroy their legacy with a series of substandard records and a touring career unfolding like a very slow, painful train wreck, along comes Rhino Records with a stunning two disc 20th anniversary release of the Femmes’ seminal (pun intended) debut record. And suddenly we remember why it is that the Femmes are absolutely one of the most important bands in American music history.
Just in case you happen to be one of the, oh, 5 or so people who never heard the classic “Blister in the Sun” or “Add It Up” — both of which are found on their debut disc — here’s the basic lowdown on the Femmes. The Milwaukee trio were founded based upon a shared fixation with American roots music and punk rock. Together, they managed what is quite possible the most successful merger of the two styles ever attempted.
When they found that they just didn’t fit into the club scene of the time, they took their act to the streets, pounding their unique vision out on street corners and in front of the clubs that refused to book them until they were spotted by The Pretenders, who invited them to open a show that very same night. Once the buzz began, it grew fast, with the end result being their self-titled debut — the only record to ever achieve platinum status without having ever charted a single song.
The key to the band was the interplay between the three musicians. Drummer Victor DeLorenzo was all about theatrics, appearing on stage in satin smoking jackets as he pounded out primitive rhythms on a single snare drum. Bassist Brian Ritchie, with his oversized mariachi acoustic bass, was the rock and roll spirit — all swagger and anger. Then there was the diminutive Gordon Gano, son of a Baptist preacher, howling out his teenage angst, all sex and isolation and, on later records, a roaming, searching spirituality.
As a local music writer once summed up the band after a live show, Gano lived out his time with the Femmes with one hand on his groin, the other on his Gideon Bible. Nobody has ever captured the tension between the flesh and the spirit or the pain of adolesence better than the Femmes at their peak and that peak undoubtedly occurred right here, with their very first record.
So enough history. What does this release have that the original doesn’t? Well, how about 26 bonus tracks, all lifted from the debut record’s timeframe? Disc 1 includes 11 demo cuts from early Femmes’ recording sessions — these are the same sessions the demo tracks on the “Add It Up” retrospective were lifted from — while disc 2 is a series of live recordings with one interview track thrown into the mix.
The demos are raw affairs, in many cases sounding like the band’s first attempts at putting these songs to tape. It’s staggering to look at the songs here, many of which appeared on records as late as New Times, and realize just how much of the classic Femmes catalog was written while Gano was still in high school. Especially so when you consider that much of the sophomore effort — the equally essential Hallowed Ground — was written before the debut had been put to tape.
The live disc is a must have for any fan of the band. The recordings here are of a band just finding their feet and adjusting to the fact that there’s actually an audience hungry to hear their work. While the band has not yet become the bruising force they would be, these recordings capture the trio in a loose and playful mood chatting up the audience and generally mocking their own success.
With this package Rhino has raised the bar on quality for CD reissues. This is very likely the best reissue package ever to see the light of day in every conceivable area. Word is Rhino’s working away on a comprehensive Violent Femmes box set and here’s hoping this release is an indicator of the quality we can expect from the box.
Written by Chris Brown.