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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Why The Violent Femmes’ First Album Was, Is And Always Will Be A Classic



It's easy to name many recording artists whose first albums were clearly better than their subsequent ones, and unfortunately, the Violent Femmes are one of them.  I liked the vast majority of the songs on their self-titled debut, which obviously made any subsequent album disappointing in comparison.  While bands should be able to change their style and not feel pressure to clone a past success, it is too bad they didn't give us more of what we loved about that first album, but nonetheless understandable since it would be impossible to live up to.

It would be difficult to duplicate an album so youthful due to the simple fact of aging.  Without a doubt, the band’s legacy is their first album, which I am arguing was an instant classic.  Seems like even if they resolve their differences about royalties and personality conflicts with drummers or whatever, they've matured, and for that reason alone won't be able to easily repeat what most of us loved about them early in their career.  

This is one of those bands where people like me were careful about who we admitted we liked the band to.  I was a somewhat average, heterosexual 16 year old guy who was hesitant to like this group when I first heard their band name, and further, after hearing the singer's somewhat gayish-sounding voice, but I got past my initial homophobia and embraced the "femme" aspect just as I eventually thought the Rocky Horror Picture Show was pretty cool, despite it's gayness.  The love songs were universal and seemed to be a dude singing about or to a chick, and were ambiguous anyway, if not intentionally so.

The reason wasn't a case of a straight guy getting in touch with his feminine side necessarily, but it was the fact that this music was impossible to not like for many reasons.  This was something totally new and bold, and I couldn't help really liking it, but I wasn't sure I could easily explain why back in 82 or 83 - I thought they were badass because they dared to be different.  When I discovered that album, and gave it a chance, it made a lasting impact on me and I still consider it one of the best albums ever made.  I thought I'd blog about why I thought it was so great, so here goes.

What I loved about that first Violent Femmes album was the combination of 1) the unique instrumental sound (acoustic bass guitar, minimalist drums w/ brush, and acoustic guitar all playing a variety of tempos with hints of reggae, country, blues, folk, and punk rock), 2) the unique sound of the singer's voice (raw, whiny, full of rebellious emotion - from lust to rage), and 3) the lyrical content, full of universally-appealing high school angst.  

That wasn't all.  4) Usage of explicit lyrics and the xylophone were surprise bonuses that added to the appeal. Topping it all off was 5) this artsy theme of contrast - the music went from slow to fast, the subject matter juxtaposed dark and light, etc., and then the always-important band name reflected that, and finally, the cover art of the girl tied it all together perfectly for an irresistable package.

It is for these aforementioned five main reasons I consider it a classic and believe it will stand the test of time.  Another indicator is I recently moved to a university town, and they still play it on college radio.  You never hear REM anymore, but they still play VF. The mostly-acoustic, simple, minimal sound played with passion and aggression led me to later have an appreciation for MTV’s Unplugged show starting in the early 90s, which features electric rock bands going mostly acoustic.  It also led me to discover similar music such as early T-Rex, Meat Puppets II, Pixies, the Pogues, Gogol Bordello, and several others.

About a decade after the Violent Femmes album was released, I became an amateur songwriter and musician myself, and I must say the sound of this record was and still is a big influence.  Of course, I consider Gordon Gano to be one of my songwriting heroes as well.  They appealed to all different types of people I would imagine, but probably their biggest fans were like me - just a few years younger than the band members themselves when that record got popular.  I know there are others out there with similar opinions, which is good to know, like this guy for example: