Music

Violent Femmes: Freak Magnet / Viva Wisconsin

Nicholas Taylor

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.


Violent Femmes

Freak Magnet / Viva Wisconsin

Label: Shout! Factory
US Release Date: 2005-05-24
UK Release Date: 2005-05-30
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

"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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image