Pretenders' front woman Chrissie Hynde was wandering the streets of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one afternoon about a decade ago when she stumbled upon three young men banging away on acoustic instruments. Hynde was mesmerized by these Midwest geeks and their sloppy, but heartfelt, acoustic punk. She proclaimed them to be the coolest band she'd ever heard--this was back when Hynde's opinion still had some weight--and invited the boys to open for the Pretenders that night.
Within a couple of hours, this trio, used to collecting only a handful of change and a couple of wadded-up dollar bills after one of its sidewalk shows, was playing in front of thousands of listeners. Paying ones.
But even after being "discovered," the Violent Femmes--singer-guitarist Gordon Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo--never really gave up curbside busking. In Milwaukee the band is still known to haul its acoustic instruments to street corners around the city and treat locals to free concerts. And during the current tour to promote their fifth album Why Do Birds Sing? the Femmes plan several inpromptu outdoor jams along with the scheduled gigs.
"I've never felt disassociated from the busking," says Gano in a recent telephone interview. "It's not like what we really are is a rock band with all these amps, and we just play acoustic on special occasions. The idea of playing anywhere, anytime, with our acoustic instruments isn't a special or unusual thing with us. It's just as much a valid expression of our music."
Much of the recently released Why Do Birds Sing? sounds as loose and likably ragged as one of the band's street-corner buskathons. The Femmes eschew electric instruments for the most part on the disc in favor of acoustic ones.
"Unplugging," of course, isn't uncommon among rock bands now. But Gano wants to make it clear that, where the Femmes are concerned, acoustic music is no fad.
"We've never gone all electric," he asserts. "There are a lot of acoustic instruments on the new record, but 3, the album we made previous to this one, probably had just as many."
Gano says the band conceived Why Do Birds Sing? as--for want of a better term--"an acoustic party album." As MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 incongruous as that concept may sound on paper, one listen to Birds and it makes perfect sense. "American Music," the disc's leadoff track and should-be hit, establishes the tongue-in-cheek mood. And nothing if not tongue-in-cheek is the band's heavily doctored version of Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me." The Femmes put their own comic spin on the rancid new-wave chestnut--Gano hums goofily during an instrumental break--but the group is too smart to just smirk its way through the song.
"We're sincere about it," Gano says. "And at the same time the irony of us doing the cover is inescapable. The whole thing is ironic and strange and kind of askew, even though we're performing it very honestly."
Three of the best songs on the disc--"Girl Trouble," "Flamingo Baby," and "Life Is a Scream"--date back to the Femmes' earliest performances on the streets of Milwaukee. Gano says the band's old-core fans have been pestering him to commit these songs to vinyl for years, and it's obvious why. All three are memorable, but "Girl Trouble," with its supercharged rockabilly beat, is the album's standout.
Because of songs like "Girl Trouble," Why Do Birds Sing? is a stirring return to form for the Femmes. The new disc's best songs call to mind the edgy brilliance of the band's 1983 debut. After a few forgettable records ('84's Hallowed Ground and '86's The Blind Leading the Naked), Birds is encouraging evidence that the group didn't peak with its rookie effort.
Still, the angst-steeped acoustic-punk of the band's debut had such an impact on some fans that nothing else the band ever does will measure up. Even Gano has resigned himself to this. "I think it would be smart for us to accept that there will be a contingent of people that will always say, `Nothing is as good as their first album.' It doesn't matter if we keep making records for another twenty years. Not even, `Nothing was as good as . . . ,' but there will be those people who will say, `Nothing has been good,'" Gano says with a laugh.
"And I have to realize that I've heard people say the same thing about the Velvet Underground and about Lou Reed. I've heard people say that about the Grateful Dead. So I guess at least we're in good company."
The Violent Femmes will perform at Mesa Amphitheatre on Saturday, August 3. Showtime is 8 p.m.
Even after being "discovered," the Violent Femmes never really gave up curbside busking.
The band conceived Why Do Birds Sing? as--for want of a better term--"an acoustic party album."
The band does a heavily doctored version of Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me," and puts its own spin on the new-wave chestnut.
Because of songs like "Girl Trouble," Why Do Birds Sing? is a stirring return to form for the Violent Femmes.