Sunday, February 12, 2012

Violent Femmes - Hallowed Ground

Violent Femmes – Hallowed Ground (5/5)

There are few bands who have released debut albums as fully formed as the Violent Femmes’s eponymous release.  In the decades since its first appearance in 1983, Violent Femmes has become somewhat iconic, and the album seems to constantly spawn a new life for itself with each new generation of listeners thanks to the way in which it delves into seemingly universal themes of alienation, anxiety, and frustration (or at least universal to every wave of American teenagers from the 1950s onward).  And while it is possible to place the Violent Femmes’s sound within a historical context, mostly as a precursor to “alternative” music along with their peers R.E.M., the unique arrangement of their influences, a strange mash up of punk, folk, and jazz, has confounded any potential imitators, making their original debut sound just as energetic and new today as it did nearly thirty years ago. 

In fact, the Femmes’s debut cast such a long shadow that each subsequent released couldn’t really escape it.  The conundrum of a successful first album can be heard in the Violent Femme’s second LP, Hallowed Ground.  For a second album, plenty of bands choose to make an inferior copy of the first, often by digging up some b-sides and calling it a day.  But for Hallowed Ground the Violent Femmes delved deep into their well of influences and offered up an album that, while clearly the work of the same three musicians, subsumes plenty of unexpected genres.  The Femmes delved into country, bluegrass and folk for some eerily Christian themed songs.  The lead singer, Gordan Gano, was raised by a devout Baptist minister, and he apparently held onto his faith despite the conflicted nature of Hallowed Ground’s songs.  The other two members of the Violent Femmes, Brian Ritchie and Victor DeLorenzo, were atheists at the time the group recorded Hallowed Ground, and at first were uncomfortable with the religious nature of the second album.  The album itself is tonally conflicted, not only swerving from one genre to another, but also swinging back and forth from religious condemnation to spiritual euphoria.

In the end, Ritchi and DeLorenzo had little to fear from this batch of songs.  This is not the music of a blindly following zealot, but of a man who feels disgust for religion even as he seemingly holds it firmly to his chest.  The first track off the album, “Country Death Song,” tells a Southern Gothic style narrative of a man who murders his entire family before hanging himself in his barn.  Told from the point of view of the husband and father, the protagonist whispers religious aphorisms to his daughters before plunging them down a well, telling them “Kiss your mother good night and remember that God saves” and later, “You know your papa loves you, good children go to heaven.”  The songs often touch upon bible-black topics like death, destruction and apocalypse, a subject that would have taken on new resonance during the cold war where potential nuclear destruction seemed to linger in everyone’s thoughts.  Tellingly, several songs, like “I Hear the Rain” and “It’s Gonna Rain,” invoke the story of Noah and the flooding of the earth.  But the centerpiece of the entire album must be the title track, which brings these themes of nuclear holocaust out from subtext.  The song begins with a spoken word invocation in the style of the King James Bible and plays with such atomic imagery as “Everyone's tryin’ to decide/where to go when there’s no place to hide/I follow the bombs as they’re coming down” and “Burn up the clouds block out the sun.”  A rising and falling piano melody leads us through the track, all the way to the end where it devolves into in a three way instrumental ruckus.  In fact several songs kick up a row in their later half, a strong disagreement between guitar, bass, and drums that perhaps signifies the conflicted nature of the album itself.

But there are also genuine gospel songs on the album, freed from any winking irony or tangled doubt.  And yet Hallowed Ground still feels like a Violent Femmes album through and through.  In part that’s because the songs are still written by the same three players who made their debut album such a classic and still include Gano’s recognizable bratty vocals and a one of the greatest series of bass lines in rock in roll.  In a sense Hallowed Ground allows us to reread the Violent Femmes’s eponymous album, forcing us to take a step back and reassess the psychosexual frustration that permeated those songs.  Instead of reading the first album as the ranting of a bored and randy kid, we might instead interpret those songs as the result of a teenager whose body was telling him something completely opposed to his upbringing.  And it is this difference between nature and religion that results in the dark night of the soul style questioning in Hallowed Ground.  Ultimately it’s because Gano’s religion is sufficiently suffused with doubt that no matter what your background, from agnostic to Episcopalian, there’s plenty in these songs that should resonate.  After all, no matter one’s ideological or religious grounding, if we do not struggle with at least some misgivings, then we have given ourselves up to someone else’s beliefs, not our own.   

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