The Violent Femmes are another early 1980s band who seemed destined for greatness, and their die-hard fans would claim they succeeded. I, however, felt they would struggle greatly on later records to match their first’s sense of humour and lyrical honestly. The Violent Femmes are a great band, but nothing they have ever done has ever topped “Add It Up” or “Blister in the Sun”. It should tell you just how tough it is to top those two songs in particular that a band as talented as the Femmes, and a songwriter as gifted as Gordon Gano, can’t even come close.
Gano famously wrote the songs of the Femmes début in high school, and thematically it shows- lots of references to masturbation and general teenage horniness litter the album. Matched with the nasally vocals Gano provides, it’s a slice of teenage angst. Rarely has a teenage boy’s brain been this much fun to listen to. Gano never takes himself too seriously, and matched with the minimalism of the music, including a ferociously talented rhythm section, it forms the basis of one of the great début records, and one of the greatest of cult classics.
Musically, the Femmes are interesting. “Blister in the Sun” is a delightfully odd number, a syncopated pop song that is either about self-love or heroin addiction ( officially the former, but the interwebs will not let the latter theory go). It is easily one of the most recognizable introductions in the history of music, and then Gano’s nasally bray cheerfully relays the lyrics before sinking into a whisper, only to blast the last chorus like a trumpet. The re-recorded version found on the Grosse Pointe Blank soundtrack is fine, but the original is dirty, sloppy fun, and should be preferred. (Best use of a snare drum ever, too).
The funny thing about my relationship with the Femmes is that I came about it accidentally. “Blister in the Sun” is a folk punk classic, but it was Reality Bites that introduced me to “Add It Up”. Gano’s ode to teenage sexual frustration. It’s gospel-like first verse launches into a speedy disintegration of neediness, begging for kisses, than sex, before collapsing in a sonic mess of guitars and drums. Rarely has a song been so desperate. If Gano was trying to nail the perpetual stereotypical teenage boy mentality, I think he did a good job.
The album also has the broken heart lament “Kiss Off”, and the xylophone solos (!) of “Gone Daddy Gone”, the chipper acoustic guitar and ” whoa whoa whoa” backing chorus belaying the sadness on “Please Do Not Go”, and the melancholic piano and shuffle of “Good Feeling”. The album’s tone is bang on, a sweet and salty mix of sex and sadness. Gano would never be so wonderfully fun lyrically, and the band’s odd blend of punkish ethos and folky abandon would later feel stale. But for one moment in the early 1980s, there was a moment where the Violent Femmes looked like they could take over the world. Instead, it took nearly a decade for this brilliant album to go platinum, and Gano became a sub in an episode of The Adventures of Pete and Pete and had a cameo on Sabrina the Teenage Witch.