The Violent Femmes are Still the Cool Kids

The Violent Femmes are Still the Cool Kids

The Violent Femmes first came into my life via Liz Thompson’s senior quote in the 1992 Prospect High yearbook (go, Panthers!). “We’re out of mints/Pass the Lifesavers,” were the words she had chosen from VF’s “Prove My Love,” off their debut self-titled LP. I was a junior, and although Liz and her tight clique of girls were only a year older than me, they were light years beyond in terms of coolness. And, since those days, I have always associated Violent Femmes with the cool kids.

Despite the commercial success of the ubiquitous “Blister in the Sun” and other staples of ‘80s and ‘90s modern rock radio, the Femmes are still a barometer of under-the-mainstream hipness. And their new LP, Hotel Last Resort, proves they’re still cool 27 years later — even if Liz Thompson is now a dentist in her late forties, happily — if unexcitingly — married with three kids in Des Moines.

There are few alternative rock bands as instantly recognizable and historically important as Violent Femmes. Starting with their classic self-titled 1983 LP, the Femmes soundtracked awkward teenage angst with cheeky humor and honest simplicity — musically and lyrically — for almost two decades. The band burst upon an early  ‘80s new wave scene overloaded with dark synths and proved you didn’t need electronics, or maybe even electricity, to get asses shaking in clove smoke filled clubs. No one sounded like the Violent Femmes when they first presented their snarky, sassy blend of folk and punk — paving the way for future groups like Against Me! and Andrew Jackson Jihad  —  and no one does today.

The band returns July 26 with Hotel Last Resort, their best record since reuniting in 2013. It’s a collection of vibrant material that can easily sit next to vintage Violent Femmes LPs like Hallowed Ground and Why Do Birds Sing? Hotel Last Resort kicks off in such a  wonderfully abrupt manner I thought I was listening to the band warm up in the studio before they started tracking. “Another Chorus” opens the LP with 10 or so seconds of loose, bluesy jamming. “Please don’t sing another chorus/That’s the thing that starts to bore us,” sings Femmes vocalist Gordon Gano, who amazingly still sounds as young and snotty as his did almost 40 years ago.

The lyrics are an obvious reference to the old “Don’t bore us/Get to the chorus” maxim of ‘60s pop producers, but the sentiment here is turned on its head with the sarcasm for which Violent Femmes are famous: pleading for the destruction of standard structure, even as they use said structure to concoct another candy-coated earworm. “Another Chorus” is catchy as hell, and a great way to start off an LP when you need to remind your fans, and the world, that you still got it. The band is loose, but no one else can do loose quite as tight as the Femmes; as a unit, more unburdened than they are unhinged. The train may sound like it’s just about to go off the rails, but, if it does, every car is going over together.

Violent Femmes have always been about songs, and songs about songs. On “American Music,” from 1991’s Why Do Birds Sing?, Gano asked: “Do you like American music?/I like American music.” Pulling back the curtain to reveal the process and adoration of their craft has always been one of the Femmes many tricks. On the title track of Hotel Last Resort, Gano continues this tradition: “I don’t change the chords anymore/The chords change by themselves.” Gano and Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie have been writing great songs for so long that it must feel like second nature to them at this point. (“I could write something better in my sleep/I could sing so pretty it would make your heart weep” Gano sings in “Not OK,” one of the most heartbreaking, and memorable tracks on their new LP.

Hotel Last Resort at times returns the band to the country death stylings they initially explored on 1984’s Hallowed Ground, galloping through a dusty desert with the help of legendary Television guitarist Tom Verlaine. Verlaine fits right in with the band’s paranoid cowboy motif on this track, his guitar slithering through the song like a thirsty snake stalking Gano’s sketchy narrator as he winds his way to the end of his own rope at the titular inn.

Tom Verlaine’s guitar isn’t the only remnant of Please Kill Me era New York City to worm its way into the Hotel Last Resort. “Everlasting You” is practically an homage to Lou Reed and the first Velvet Underground LP. As druggy and icily passionate as any song off The Velvet Underground & Nico, there are nods to Mo Tucker’s insistent, relentless drum hits, Sterling Morrison’s deep, dark leads, and, of course, Reed’s vocal delivery — somehow both sardonic and sincere at once.

“Faith/Faith in you/Unshakable, true,” sings Gano. If it was Reed singing, I would guess the “you” was a drug or some other vice. The song is like “Heroin” without, well, the heroin. It made me wonder if VF could record an album of VU covers and title it Femmes Fatale. I’m guessing they won’t, only because despite being up there in age, the Femmes still sound like they have a lot to say, as proved by the solid lyrics throughout the album.

Gano’s attitude is on full display in “I Get What I Want”: “If you can’t obey me/Then you don’t deserve me/I get what I want/And I want what I get.” The track is Violent Femmes distilled to their bare essence in two and a half minutes: beyond bratty and downright dangerous. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly innocent troubadours with their honeyed harmonies; at their core they are dirty street corner buskers with filthy feet and filthier minds. Since their very first LP, Gano and the Femmes have been searching for just one kiss, just one screw, just one fuck. I’m betting that not only does the Hotel Last Resort not have valet parking or room service, but that the rooms have seen more than their fair share of drugs, sex and possibly even death.

One thing that’s hitting as hard as ever on Hotel Last Resort is Brian Ritchie’s bass. It’s impossible to write about any Violent Femmes LP, or the band itself, without mentioning Ritchie, who is a bass player as iconic as Flea or Sly Stone. More than melodic, his lines drive all the best Femmes songs and are often some of the most memorable parts. He can provide low-end support for a track and still sound like he’s playing a lead at the same time. For the most part on this record, Ritchie keeps his leads in the hotel closet. But his strength and drive are still alive and pushing the band forward on their seedy journey.

With newish drummer John Sparrow, Violent Femmes still have one of the leanest, meanest rhythm sections in the business. Listen to “This Free Ride” and you’ll hear what I mean. Although the bass is clean, possibly even acoustic, and the drums are played merely with brushes, Ritchie and Sparrow manage an aggression many punk bands only wish for. Gano brags, “I don’t need no kind of pride/Not with me on this free ride,” but he wouldn’t be going anywhere without the solid engine the femmes keep under their hood. This ride may be free, but it’s paid for with the blood and sweat of Ritchie and Sparrow.

Hotel Last Resort gets deeper and darker as it moves through its 13 tracks. Like an extended stay at an actual fleabag motel, the more time you spend in it, whatever cheap charms it offered at the outset are long gone, leaving the visitor with only morbid self reflection and an impending sense of doom.

“Please lover/Don’t let the terror scare us too deep,” Gano sighs over a bed of acoustic guitar and gently brushed snare in the plaintive, heartfelt “Paris to Sleep.” “All the horror and the terror may tear us and scare us to sleep/Or may bear us to Paris/Where I came to weep.” Gano’s body may be seeking rest in Paris, but it’s obvious his mind and heart are stuck in the cold limbo he found, or created, at the Hotel Last Resort.

The walls truly begin to close in on Gano and the gang on the penultimate track, “Sleepin’ at the Meetin’.” The song is fully acapella — maybe at this point in the story he and the band have sold their instruments, and possibly their luggage and clothes as well, to pay for one last desperate night at the Hotel Last Resort. Well, they surely don’t use it to catch up on sleep, even if most of the lyrics are about sleeping: the band follows Gano in a whimsically paranoid chant of whiskey drinking, general sleaze and “The way/That I creep.” It’s unsettling, honest humor as only the Femmes can do it, and a sure sign that they’ve just about overstayed their welcome in this grimy lodge, in this forsaken town.

Hotel Last Resort closes, rather fittingly, with an interpretation of the patriotic folk standard “God Bless America.” I say an interpretation, as the chords and sentiments are far more minor and darker than the original ode to the glory of our nation we all know and either love, loath or tolerate. Gano and the band reimagine the song as a dirty, grumbly dirge that would sound more at home in a bloody spaghetti Western than it would blaring out of the speakers at a stadium before a major league ball game.

On this final track, the band sounds like they may be wishing for God to bless America if only to save it, and us all, from these terribly grim times. Because, perhaps above all else, Violent Femmes are an American band. Their lyrics capture our American hopes, secret fears, and dirty desires, their acoustic instruments and intelligent anxieties firmly rooted in American folk music traditions. This is American music. Do you like American music?

Those of us who came of age in the Violent Femmes’ 80s and ‘90s heyday are now the age our boomer parents were when we were in high school. We’re not young, and we’re not cool. But as we drift into middle age and beyond, its nice to know the Femmes are not just still here for us, but that they sound as young, cool and American as they ever did. I like American music, and I love the Violent Femmes.

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