Violent Femmes: Freak Magnet / Viva Wisconsin

[21 June 2005]

By Nicholas Taylor

“They just had an article about us in the Milwaukee Journal saying, ‘They’re really old . . . the Femmes are old”, proclaims Violent Femmes guitarist and singer Gordon Gano to a live Milwaukee crowd, preceding their blistering rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street”, a bonus track on Shout! Factory’s reissue of the Femmes’ 2000 album, Freak Magnet. “Well”, he continues, “we’re going to do a song by someone much older than us. Let me tell you something . . . you’re never too old to rock and roll. And if you suck, being young ain’t gonna help you!” Backing up his point, Gano and the rest of the Femmes launch into a punked up version of Dylan’s classic kiss off, barking, “You’ve got a lot of nerve” over and over again. Given the performance’s rancor and grit, you can’t help but agree with Gano: the Femmes may be old, but they certainly don’t suck.

I think most people would be surprised to hear that the Violent Femmes are still together and making music. Perhaps no other band has been so well known for their debut album, and only their debut album, than the Violent Femmes, whose eponymous 1982 album made them the darlings of disenchanted college and high school kids everywhere. With tracks like “Blister in the Sun”, “Kiss Off”, and “Add It Up”, Violent Femmes was a boisterous acoustic punk masterpiece, an ode to teenage disappointment, angst, and bravado. While their career has had some minor highlights since that auspicious beginning (the unadulterated joy of “American Music”, the humorous sexuality of “Gimme the Car”), they have mostly dropped off the larger culture’s radar screen. When they do pop up, it is most often in the form of a nod back to their youthful landmark album, such as when Ethan Hawke covered “Add It Up” in the film Reality Bites.

The two latest Femmes releases are actually reissues of two albums from a few years ago that had since gone out of print: 1999’s live greatest hits collection, Viva Wisconsin, and their most recent studio album, 2000’s Freak Magnet. Viva Wisconsin is a great collection of tracks spanning the Femmes’ entire career, performed in front of an adoring crowd in their hometown of Milwaukee. Even though the liner notes tell us that this recording was made in 1998, if someone had told me that it was made in 1982, I would not be surprised. Somehow, the Femmes have kept the same youthful ardor, pain, and humor that defined their debut: their playing is just as manic, and Gano’s voice has the same exact warble, which simultaneously hints at frailty, self-deprecation, and passion. This twenty-one song disk covers all the big songs from the early years (except for my personal favorite, “Please Do Not Go”) as well some of their most entertaining later tracks, such as “Old Mother Reagan”, “American Music”, “Black Girls”, and “I’m Nothing”.

For people who have not been following the Femmes lately, Freak Magnet will come as a surprise. The most glaring difference between this 2000 album and their earlier work is the distortion: Freak Magnet is fully electrified. Not only that, but on many of the tracks, the Femmes sound way more punk than they do pop. The title track is a pulsing rock song, with the entire band chanting “I’m a freak magnet!” over a bruising punk riff. At spots the Femmes have maintained the same joy and desperation heard in their earlier work, such as in “Rejoice and Be Happy”, a raucous romp of a song, which takes as its inspiration a few verses from the Gospel of Matthew, perhaps reflecting Gano’s earnest Christianity. I particularly liked the line, “Ye are the salt of the earth / If you’re not salty, what are you worth?”, a very clever way of a melding faith and sexuality. What many people will be surprised about is the darker side of the Femmes, which has been more and more on display as they’ve progressed throughout their career. “Mosh Pit” verges on death-metal thrashing, with demonic choruses chanting the song’s title, and “A Story” is a swirling sound experiment of atonal shrieks and halting rhythms underneath a nightmare lyric.

While Freak Magnet will probably not maintain a spot on my iPod, I can at least appreciate the fact that the Violent Femmes are still making music that is interesting and compelling, even if I feel it in no way compares to the beauty and energy of their debut album. For that reason, I found myself listening again and again to Viva Wisconsin rather than Freak Magnet: that way, I could at least revel in the pulsing passion and angst of “Prove My Love”, tapping my foot and nodding my head as Gano asks, “What do I have to do / What do I have to do / What do I have to do / To prove my love to you?” I guess for me, and countless others, there is very little the Femmes can do to win us over, save making their debut all over again, which of course can never happen. But they’re keeping at it, and for that I commend them.

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