24 To Fight For: Violent Femmes
Listen To The List: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7lfNFALKDiUMGxqBU3UcVu
Imagine if you had to choose a desert island playlist for a band you really love. Imagine if for some reason you were going away and could only take a single 24 song playlist with you for that beloved group and those would be the only songs by that artist that you could ever listen to again. What would you choose? What 24 songs would you fight for and say that these songs are your personal favorites and/or the best that the artist has to offer. That is the premise of my 24 To Fight For playlists. For this project I will choose my personal favorites from an artist and make the tough call of ranking those songs from #24 to #1 (trying to NOT let the fact that some songs may be overplayed influence me but basing them on my original feelings are much as possible). This is my list and I would love to see you play along and make yours too! What songs would you fight for?
I recently did the Violent Femmes classic self-titled debut album as part of my “Albums Re-Imagined” series (click here if you are interested in reading that article and listening to the re-imagined version of the record: https://alternativealbumsblog.wordpress.com/2021/01/16/albums-re-imagined-violent-femmes-by-violent-femmes/ ) Doing so got me thinking about the Femmes discography again. That first album is a stone cold classic without a weak track on it, which is what makes the rest of their discography somewhat maddening. Pretty much every other Violent Femmes album has great songs, some of which rival the songs on their debut, but most of those albums are also very inconsistent. So I thought Violent Femmes would be a perfect choice to tackle in this “24 To Fight For” series and here it is:
#24 – “Mirror Mirror (I See A Damsel)” – From the album New Times
Violent Femmes have a history of writing and recording some very strange and unsettling songs but “Mirror Mirror (I See A Damsel)” is even a bit odd for them. Musically, the song borrows liberally from the sound of eastern European or Jewish folk music and creates a feeling of a childhood fairytale gone awry, like a musical backing track for one of the Brothers Grimm’s most creepy myths. Over this unusual musical foundation singer Gordan Gano tells a tale of unrequited love and unslaked lust that seems to cross the ages and slowly descends into madness. I would like “Mirror Mirror” even better if the song ended with Gano’s lyrics and dropped the weird instrumental coda that goes on far too long at the end.
#23 – “Dating Days” – From the album 3
Violent Femmes’ album 3 is a strange album in that the trio can’t seem to decide which direction to pursue. Much of the album is dark and relatively serious material but the album is also punctuated by the juvenile angst songs that made their debut such a delight. “Dating Days” is from the latter category and, while it never ascends to the heights of their debut (in part because the band weren’t actually angry, horny teens anymore), it at least comes fairly close and is one of my favorites from 3.
#22 – “Blister In The Sun” – From the album Violent Femmes
It is hard to be objective about “Blister In The Sun” anymore. It was the first thing I ever heard from Violent Femmes and I still can remember how it made me feel both excited and a little uncomfortable. However, it was never my favorite song from the debut in spite of it being the “hit”. Furthermore, like it or not, the song has been ubiquitous in the years sense and so it is very hard to hear it with fresh ears. That said, the strummed folk/punk guitar riffs, the driving bass groove, and the staccato drumming all still are effective and sound great and the song has remained a classic alt rock staple for more than forty years now and while it may not ever feel new to me anymore it still is a great listen.
#21 – “All I Want” – From the album Freak Magnet
More than a decade passed between Violent Femmes’ sixth album New Times and its follow-up Freak Magnet as the Femmes largely sat out the alternative music revolution they helped inspire. And when they did return Freak Magnet was a decidedly hit or miss affair. However, one of the gems of that long-awaited album is the moody “All I Want”. “All I Want” is the rare Violent Femmes song that is mostly both mature and serious, lacking very little humor or irony. While maturity is a theme and mood they have at times struggled to master (it is always hard for bands who become known for juvenile angst and silly humor to grow up) the Femmes rarely do it better than on “All I Want”. “All I Want” is a song that perfectly fits what the teenager who sang “Add It Up” would be like feeling and thinking as he enters his middle years.
#20 – “Lies” – From the album 3
As I mentioned above Violent Femmes 3 is an album pulled between two directions, the song that combines those two polarities best is probably “Lies”. Musically, “Lies” recalls the folk/punk acoustic busking the band is best known for, but lyrically Gano is tackling the topic of hypocrisy. Of course, hypocrisy is a topic that applies to teenage frustrations as easily as adulthood, but here Gano seems to mostly be tackling the topic from an adult perspective and “Lies” bridges the two moods of the record quite nicely while still being a good song in its own right.
#19 – “Fat” – From the album 3
“Fat” is juvenile, silly, and a little rude…and it’s better for it. In truth, the song is a clever take on longing for the girl who got away, not a mean-spirited song attacking her for leaving. Gano’s protagonist is merely daydreaming of what conditions might bring his lost love back. It’s a simple and strangely sweet, which is an unexpected twist from a song whose first line is “I hope you got fat:”.
#18 – “Hallowed Ground” – From the album Hallowed Ground
Over their career one of their career one of the major themes Violent Femmes’ repeatedly explores in their music is the tension between the sacred and the profane. And while the band’s characters almost always fall on the wrong side of that line there is a fear of looming judgment and potential damnation running through much of their music. This tension is the heart of Violent Femmes second album Hallowed Ground, as can be heard on this, the title track from that record. One of the Femmes’ best serious songs “Hallowed Ground” shows that the band’s sound could grow up without losing its identity with Brian Ritchie’s prominent bass work tying it to their past while producer Mark VanHecke’s subtle piano fills lends the song both a sense of seriousness and a hint of spirituality.
#17 – “Hotel Last Resort” – From the album Hotel Last Resort
When the Violent Femmes’ burst onto the underground scene in the early 1980’s part of their appeal was how unique their sound was. However, that doesn’t mean that the Femmes’ didn’t have influences and one of their most obvious were post-punk pioneers Television. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that “Hotel Last Resort”, a song that features Tom Verlaine of Television on lead guitars, feel like the most interesting song the band has done since at least 1994’s New Times album. A trippy and vaguely psychedelic folk rocker “Hotel Last Resort” seems to move the Femmes’ sound subtly forward by creating loose echoes of the past. Not only does Verlaine play on the song but moments feel like a demented Dylan, while the title at least calls to mind the Eagles’ “Hotel California”. The song doesn’t really feel like Television or the Eagles and only slightly like Bob Dylan but it does feel like one of those songs that has always existed and was just waiting for someone to capture it and bring it into the world, making “Hotel Last Resort” a somewhat unexpected late career near-classic from Violent Femmes that I love.
#16 – “I Held Her In My Arms” – From the album The Blind Leading The Naked
“I Held Her In My Arms” is the best known song from Violent Femmes’ third album The Blind Leading The Naked and was a minor hit in college rock and 80’s indie circles. That said, it is a song that for years I just didn’t like, then one day it just clicked for me and it became a favorite. I think I fought against liking it for so long because it just didn’t fit my preconceived notions of what the Femmes should sound like. “I Held Her In My Arms” does still have some of the smarmy humor and attitude of their early albums but it is a more traditionally structured song and a more fully produced song, even featuring a full-blown horn section. For whatever reason I was slow to embrace this song but eventually I realized how good it is.
#15 – “I Hear The Rain” – From the album Hallowed Ground
Short and frenetic, “I Hear The Rain” sounds and feels like a furious and fast moving storm; full of fury, but quickly spent. The intensity of the song is only increased by the expertly placed layered voices that eventually split into multiple competing vocal parts. Drummer Victor DeLorenzo also steps aside from his drum kit to play a xylophone part that cleverly recreates the sound of falling rain that serves the song perfectly.
#14 – “Confessions” – From the album Violent Femmes
Violent Femmes amazing debut is, in many ways, the perfect album about the highs and lows of the adolescent experience. This is why it is somewhat ironic that the album’s centerpiece, “Confessions”, is the most mature and adult song on the record. “Confessions” tackles many of the same themes as the rest of the album, but does so without the humor and sophomoric jokes. This is not a negative as it lends a gravitas and weight to “Confessions” that separates it from the rest of the album and makes it something of an emotional anchor. Indeed, without “Confessions” the rest of the album may lose some of its power because it might seem like a novelty or joke. Confessions never sounds or feels like either, it is just a great song whose presence makes the rest of the album feel more grounded in reality.
#13 – “Look Like That” – From the album Why Do Birds Sing?
Why Do Birds Sing?, the Violent Femmes fifth album, is the album that most closely matches the sound and feel of their classic debut. “Look Like That” reverts to the frustrated teenager persona of that album and tackles the everpresent adolescent topic of peer pressure and trying to fit in. Who hasn’t felt the pressure of trying to discover who you are and where you fit in? And who hasn’t realized how shallow some of the behavior that makes the distinction between cool and uncool is? This song addresses that while also nodding to how important it still is to be accepted.
#12 – “He Like Me” – From the album Why Do Birds Sing?
While “He Likes Me” and “Look Like That” are not sequenced near each other on the Why Do Birds Sing? album to me they have always been sister songs that are connected in my head. The two songs seem to be connected (at least to me) and draw on the same themes of high school acceptance and inclusion (or rejection and exclusion) in a way that feels very real. Because of this I always placed them back to back on any Femmes’ mix tapes or playlists I made and have done so again here since I love both songs.
#11 – “American Music” – From the album Why Do Birds Sing?
“American Music” is the classic sound of the Violent Femmes debut album given a touch of maturity and professionalism and it works very well. Indeed, “American Music” is the kind of song that should have been a hit, especially as it came out just as alternative music was leaving the underground and becoming mainstream. Regardless of its commercial success though “American Music” is a great song, a great opening track to their second best album, and a great entry point into the band’s sound.
#10 – “Please Do Not Go” – From the album Violent Femmes
On “Please Do Not Go” the Violent Femmes decide to graft reggae and island music influences into their acoustic busking style. This is the kind of weird hybrid that an older, more experienced band may have immediately dismissed as a “dumb idea” but the Femmes pull it off well. Musically, the song has a languid, breezy feel to it built off of a light ska rhythm and it merges the diverse elements into something sunny and warm. However, “Please Do Not Go” has an internal tension that lends it strength because Gordon Gano’s lyrics depict enough emotional bloodletting that they could be the blueprint for any early 00’s emo band (not to mention the emotion he pours into his actual singing) and this sits at odds against the gentle island sway of the music. It is this dichotomy that makes “Please Do Not Go” a superb track.
#9 – “Country Death Song” – From the album Hallowed Ground
A dark, twisted satire of the country music genre, “Country Death Song” uses many of the sounds and tropes of traditional country music and twists them into something uniquely Violent Femmes. Brian Ritchie plays a classic country bass line that lends the song a sense of authenticity while guest musician Tony Trischka lays down a mean and slightly crazed sounding banjo riff. Meanwhile, Gordon Gano taps into the longstanding trope folk/country trope of the murder ballad, only here he sings a first person accound of a broken farmer and family man who is slowly descending into madness, resulting in the murder of his daughter and his own suicide. It is a bleak but effective look at isolation, loneliness, and madness, given just a sly touch of humor by selling it as a “country” song.
#8 – “Kiss Off” – From the album Violent Femmes
Yet another classic song of teenage angst and frustration from the Femmes’ classic debut album. Like so many of the best Violent Femmes songs the music is their unique combination of folk and punk with vocals from Gano that are packed with the kind of emotion that only comes from real life experience. “Kiss Off” just uses this form better than most and adds a memorable hook with its famous “count up” section over the bridge.
#7 – “Good Feeling” – From the album Violent Femmes
“Good Feeling” may be one of the saddest songs ever written. Gano’s lyrics are bittersweet and his vocals lend them just the perfect touch of pain and resignation because he knows the good times never last. However, the song’s perfect touch is the barroom piano that gives it a dusty, worn-out, Old West feel and the slightly out of tune violin Gano plays over the bridge. A masterpiece of mood that ends one of the best debut albums ever and whose real pain is accentuated by the half joking, half crazed tone of the rest of the album.
#6 – “Breaking Up” – From the album New Times
“Breaking Up” is one of the best Violent Femmes songs to stray from their classic formula. Somber and menacing, Gano sings in his creepy lower register and steps into the madman persona he inhabits so well while inverting the lyrics to Neil Sedaka’s classic “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”. Sedaka’s song is cheerful and naive and captures the innocence of teenage relationships in the late 1950’s. The Violent Femmes twist that feeling into something dark and deranged, capturing the anger and inner turmoil of the jilted lover very well. And when the electric guitar comes roaring in at about the halfway point, backed by (then) new drummer Guy Hoffman’s crashing drums, it is one of the most intense and perfect moments in any Violent Femmes song.
#5 – “Color Me Once” – From The Crow Motion Picture Soundtrack
I have always wondered if “Color Me Once” was originally written as part of the recording sessions for 1994’s New Times and was somehow not used on that album or if it was written afterwards specifically for the movie The Crow. If it is the former then the Violent Femmes somehow chose to leave the best song they did after their classic era (which covers their first five albums and ended in 1993 when original drummer Victor DeLorenzo left the band) off their own album and instead give it to the movie soundtrack for an obscure gothic action comic book movie (the movie turned out to be a classic but there is little chance anyone expected that ahead of time). If the latter though and it was written for the film, then “Color Me Once” is pretty obscure because while it does fit the mood of the film, it does not really directly tie into anything from the film’s plot or themes. Either way the gloomy mood and schizophrenic emotions of the song work perfectly and, I believe, “Color Me Once” is easily the best song Violent Femmes released after 1991’s Why Do Birds Sing?
#4 – “Never Tell” – From the album Hallowed Ground
The #9 song on my list was “Country Death Song” from the album Hallowed Ground, which is a satire of the classic country and folk murder ballad trope. However, later on that same album the Violent Femmes tackle the murder ballad again in a more serious and traditional fashion on the song “Never Tell”. On “Never Tell” though the Femmes focus on guilt, the building tension of knowing a dark secret, the stress of knowing that others also know that secret and that you cannot control their actions, and how all these things can slowly eat away at a person. The song slowly builds itself up musically as the tension in the narrator builds as well and in the process creates one of the Violent Femmes best songs.
#3 – “More Money Tonight” – From the album Why Do Birds Sing?
In many ways Violent Femmes second best album, 1991’s Why Do Birds Sing? Is a return to form because it, more than any other album, returns to the sound and themes of their classic debut. The album isn’t a retread or rewrite, the songs are more restrained and come from a slightly older perspective, but many of them use the same folk/punk style of the debut and draw on themes of teenage lust, loneliness, and the degradations of high school. “More Money Tonight” captures the mood and sound of the debut nearly perfectly but twists the plot. On the debut the outsider never got the girl and never got to be cool. Here, on “More Money Tonight”, the outsider (and Gano sings it too directly for it to be anybody other than himself) finally gets the last laugh as he is the rock star now; telling off the former tormentors and hangers-on with the lyrics “I’ll make more money tonight that you ever dreamed of/You thought I was strange just look at me now/If you are lucky I’ll play in your city/And you can come see me/If you have the money”. Revenge is a dish best served cold. It’s funny, brutal, and must have felt so, so good.
#2 – “Add It Up” – From the album Violent Femmes
“Blister In The Sun” is the gateway drug into the Violent Femmes; the song most people first heard from the band and introduced them to the band. However, “Add It Up” is their most classic track, the perfect encapsulation of everything that made the band different and special. It is a microcosm of the rest of their superb debut album (and to an extent their entire discography). “Add It Up” is punky and folky, angry and horny, creepy and crazed, funny and frustrated, decidedly juvenile and shockingly adult. It captures the maelstrom of teenage emotions, hormones, hopes and disappointments perfectly and still sounds as fresh and relevant now as it did in 1983.
#1 – “Gimme The Car” – Originally a UK single; bonus track added to the album Violent Femmes
Others could argue the Violent Femmes have better or more important songs and they would likely be right, but my favorite has always been “Gimme The Car”. All of the pieces that make songs like “Add It Up” or “Blister In The Sun” classic archetypal Violent Femmes songs are present on “Gimme The Car” as well. The lyrics are another perfect description of the lust and frustration felt by many a teen and, in this case especially bitter and ironic, as our ever present Femmes’ outsider hero finally has a girl who is willing only to still have to overcome one final obstacle: Convincing his dad to give him the car so that his lustful and nefarious plans are not all in vain. It is blackly humorous and absolutely glorious and how it was not included on their debut album in the first place is baffling. Musically, the song also is archetypal Femmes with Brian Ritchie’s bass popping and growling and driving the song forward, while Gano’s guitar has the most perfectly placed guitar note ever. On “Gimme The Car” the Violent Femmes capture both a sense of realism and of absurd black humor expertly and it makes the song one of the best they ever recorded and my personal favorite.