Violent Femmes' Profane Gospel Rock Album Turns 30
Slash Records, 1984
In the "about" section of the Violent Femmes' official Facebook page, under the "description" header, it currently reads: "Violent Femmes are currently touring in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the release of their first album."
It's an album worth celebrating; recorded by a trio of Milwaukee folk punks -- singer/guitarist Gordon Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie, and drummer Victor Delorenzo -- there are few albums more loaded with definitive songs than the Femmes' 1983 self-titled debut, boasting alternative classics like "Gone Daddy Gone," "Add It Up," "Kiss Off," and "Blister in the Sun." But as good as Violent Femmes is, the album actually celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2014, the Femmes' second LP Hallowed Ground, is even better.
Released in June of 1984, Hallowed Ground is the Femmes finest musical effort, and Gano's definitive moment as a lyricist. With the LP, Gano embraced his faith, something previously restrained in his songs at the request of atheist members Ritchie and Delorenzo. In a 1989 interview with Phoenix New Times, Gano explained.
"At the time, Brian was very aggressively anti-anything Christian. He said he didn't want to be playing in a band that was expressing something that he felt so vehemently against. I figured they'd find their expression sometime later."
It was the strength of Gano's fiery gospel punk songs, the devotional "Jesus Walking on the Water," "Hallowed Ground," which reads like it was ripped from book of Psalms, and his gleeful ode to God's righteous wrath, "It's Gonna Rain," that caused Ritchie to relent.
"It's funny," Gano said back in '89, "Brian now says that my Christian songs are some of my best numbers."
It's not thatHallowed Ground
would ever be mistaken for a standard praise and worship Christian rock -- songs like the violent murder ballad "Country Death Song" and the shaky moral ground of "Never Tell" see to that. In fact, most punk fans assumed that the songs were sarcastic, and Gano's jittery cadence and defiant delivery do little to dissuade such thinking.
But whereas songwriters like Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, whose use of Christian language doesn't tie them to a particular religiosity, Gano's belief is sincere. On even the scurrilous and profane "Black Girls," Gano invokes holy acceptance: "You know I love the Lord of hosts / The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost / I was so pleased to learn that he's inside me/In my time of trouble he will hide me."
With Hallowed Ground, the Femmes also hit a musical stride. With the album the band expands on the tightly-coiled folk punk of the band's debut, adding in elements of gospel and Sun Records country. Ritchie's basslines -- already one of the Femmes' defining elements, is featured prominently, adding melodic counter points to the Velvet Underground-influenced "I Know It's True But I'm Sorry to Say." Avant-garde legend John Zorn adds shronking saxophone to "Black Girls," and throughout the album the "Horns of Dilemma" add clarinet and trombone. With Hallowed Ground, the Femmes shrugged off the Modern Lovers comparisons that circled debut, forecasting punk's impending embrace of country and roots (which would birth the alt-country genre) and morphing into as potent a musical combo as the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen.
Following the album, Gano would continue to explore Christian themes, with the Femmes, solo, and with his project the Mercy Seat. The Femmes would go through lineup changes, legal struggles, and occasionally disband, but in 2013 Gano and Ritchie teamed with Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione to tour in celebration of the band's 1983 self-titled debut. The tour is still rolling, no doubt inspired by some of the holy fervor of Hallowed Ground.
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