For the disenchanted boys and girls of early '80s suburbia, the kind of kids who stepped into adolescence with alienation and dissatisfaction (and a protective layer of superiority) lodged deep in the center of their chests, the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano was nothing less than a prophet. Now those kids are all grown up, but most of us are just as agreeably miserable, which may be one of the reasons Gano's newest disc, Hitting the Ground, works.
Written as the soundtrack to a film of the same name, this is just what you might expect from America's favorite black sheep: sugary, simplistic melodies under which lie the brooding, barely contained frustrations of a man still not quite comfortable in his own skin. An impressive roster of talent lends the album its vocals (Gano's distinctive yowl shows up on only two of Ground's tracks), with folks like PJ Harvey, John Cage, Frank Black and Lou Reed doing a fine job of standing in at the microphone. Harvey does her best Chrissie Hynde on the title track, and Cage goes Weimar-era showman for "Don't Pretend." Both Black's and Reed's tracks are particularly stunning, partly because Gano seems to have a better idea what sort of songs these two ought to be singing than they presently do themselves.
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The album has the studied range that comes with writing music for specific scenes and tones, which is good news for those with a thirst for variation. Folk, punk and country all put in appearances, and Ground would have the feel of a compilation were it not for the pleasant undercurrent of giddiness that is irrefutably and endearingly Gano. All these many years later and the man still knows how to write a song with verve and wit and just the right touch of sweet exasperation.