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When the Violent Femmes released their first album, in the spring of 1983, the sound was a revelation: twitching and frenetic folk songs played on mostly acoustic instruments with all the manic urgency of punk. Singer-guitarist Gordon Gano was the trio’s ringleader, a tense ur-adolescent who fine-tuned a nasty nasal whine to snot-nosed, punk perfection. That voice signified teen angst in a way that Gano’s torn-from-a-diary musings could only approach, but that isn’t to say the lyrics weren’t great, too. They were. Gano was both freak and geek, an ex-Honor Society kid who sang about hating life and staining sheets.
That juxtaposition alone could probably have sustained a lesser career, but on Album 2 (the underrated Hallowed Ground), Gano took a left turn into a bizarro promised land, cultivating a Flannery O’Connor-style fascination with Christianity into a second, complementary persona: the Bible-quoting madman who’s probably going to kill you to pay for his sins. That album’s “Country Death Song” remains the pinnacle of Gano’s murder-balladeering, but an early side project, the Mercy Seat, upped the ante on this creepy character and found the head Femme playing punkified gospel with such passion and commitment, it was hard to spot the irony.
That’s less of a problem on the band’s latest, Freak Magnet, however. The Femmes’ ninth LP features a green-faced, one-eyed monster on the cover, a third limb dangling grotesquely between its gangly legs. Subtle it’s not. Childlike and perverse, the image captures the sex- and death-obsessed mannish boy Gano’s been developing for—can it possibly be?—17 years now.
Less tortured souls might have used at least some of that time to work out their, um, “issues.” But not Gano—he’s nurtured them like a fetish. Consider “Forbidden,” a strummed folk-pop song so light and airy, you’ll be tempted to sing along the first time you hear it. If you do, though, you’ll be singing these words, which Gano borrowed from the poet William Carlos Williams: “Come with us and play!/See, we have breasts as women!/From your tents by the sea/Come play with us:/It is forbidden!” And don’t forget the elongated and demented glee—especially on the word “forbidden”—conveyed in print by those taunting exclamation points.
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Like “Forbidden,” many of the Femmes’ best songs conjure up the pleasures of succumbing to temptations of the flesh; their second best typically damn you to hell for it. For Gano, of course, hell is other people—most often other, unobtainable girl-people. The debut’s famous “Add It Up” is still the band’s truest take on unrequited lust, but because it’s probably possible to end-rhyme “luck” with “fuck” only once in a career, Gano’s inner lech has gotten more poetically articulate over the years. As a pure statement of abject obsession, for instance, it doesn’t get much more (sym)pathetic than these lines from “At Your Feet”: “At your feet I’d kiss every one of your cool toes/My dumb heart is not as smart as what a fool knows/At your kiss I’d curse everyone for my bad luck/I wish but to whisper ‘I love you’/But I will not fuck up your life.”
The lovely “All I Want” offers an aching version of the same sentiment. Over a stately, tremoloed drone, Gano croons a countryish lullaby with phrasing so heartbreaking, it’s easy to miss the depravity of the words: “I’m hopin’ for your kiss/I’m dopin’ cause I miss you so much”; elsewhere in the song, he’s “dying for your embrace.”
But the Femmes have always been about more than the sum of Gano’s obsessions, and some of Freak Magnet’s finest moments have nothing to do with the singer’s neuroses. “Mosh Pit” is a full-throttled hardcore genre exercise, complete with hilariously inane lyrics: “What’s for breakfast/What’s for lunch/What’s for dinner/Captain Crunch!!!” And the otherwise deeply disturbed “Sleepwalkin’” (more punk, this time with a knowing, Dee Dee-like 1-2-3-4 count-in) relents just long enough for Gano to poke fun at his own Tom Verlaine-as-coached-by-Lou Reed vocals: “Is the singer/Singing badly/Or is he trying to sing/the wrong song?”
Throughout the album, longtime collaborator Brian Ritchie and newer Femme drummer Guy Hoffman match their front man’s passion note for note, moving deftly among the punk, folk, and country-rock styles that have been the Femmes’ musical stomping ground since the band’s inception. Musically, the group has never sounded this sharp or cohesive; all two minutes and 22 seconds of “Hollywood Is High,” the tightly wound album opener, should be required listening for neo-punk groups everywhere. The rest of the album’s sonic strategy is instructive as well: light a short, crackling fuse under a song and wait impatiently for the explosion.
But with Gano, you never have to wait very long. For my money, Freak Magnet’s masterpiece is the throbbing rave-up, “Rejoice and Be Happy.” You know, celebrate “When men revile you/Just like the saviour told us to do.” It’s one of the Femmes’ gospel-punk hybrids, a scratchy, scary-if-he’s-serious ode to Reverend Gano’s persecuted religious brethren (otherwise known as the salt of the earth), in which the singer asks the musical question, “If you’re not salty/What are you worth?” Good question, Gordon. Think I’ll look up the scripture right now, but first I’m gonna lock the door, OK? CP