Do you like American music? Gordon Gano sure does, and he wants to tell you all about it on the Violent Femmes’ fifth and second-best album, Why Do Birds Sing? Opener “American Music” starts with a rushed count-off and a slow chorus, and then the Milwaukee trio launches into a celebration of pop songs in all their weird majesty, undercutting any nostalgia with a healthy dose of self-deprecation. Of course, that title points to a vast ocean of notes and melodies and rhythms, all of which the Femmes attempt to cram into three minutes and fifty seconds. The song is overstuffed, in the best way possible, with knowing nods to Phil Spector’s wall of sound and Aaron Copland’s everyman symphonies, Motown and Sun Records, blues and jazz and girl groups, folk and punk and psychedelia, and those out-of-the-way scenes that produce oddball combinations of these various traditions.
In other words, the song is everything the Violent Femmes do better than anyone else. “American Music” has their habitual street-busker approximations of pop trends, as well as the acoustic punk shuffle that immediately became their signature. Most of all, it’s got Gano playing the sympathetic creep, but this time he’s creeping on his favorite songs. The son of a preacher and a Broadway actress, he loved old hymns and old blues and weird folk even when he was an awkward teen scrawling lyrics in his school notebook. Those obsessions persisted into adulthood with the Femmes, along with a very particular strain of teenage alienation those songs address: neediness mixed with snottiness, anxiety mingled with bravado, rebellion duking it out with conformity. All of those ugly feelings made the Femmes one of the great post-punk bands of the early 1980s, with one of the most confidently eccentric debuts of the decade.
But “American Music” is not simply a mission statement. It’s also something like an apology for the purposefully obscure albums that followed their first album. They saved all their weird-ass Americana for their sophomore album, Hallowed Ground, which sounds like it was made by a band that just huffed the contents of The Anthology of American Folk Music. It’s full of skewed hymns like “Jesus Walking on the Water” and bizarre murder ballads like “Country Death Songs.” Albums three and four lacked even that power to alienate, however, revealing a group harried and unfocused after years of relentless touring.
In other words, they knew Why Do Birds Sing? would necessarily mark a comeback, and 30 years later it still hits with the force of a band finally getting back to what it does best. Working with producer Michael Beinhorn—best known for helming albums by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Soundgarden—the Femmes pared back down to a trio, with Gano on guitar, Brian Ritchie on acoustic bass, bouzouki, and a thousand other random instruments, and Victor DeLorenzo on brushed snare. Each song contains clever musical flourishes, like the tympani on “American Music,” the jangly Byrds guitar on “Look Like That,” and the soft-rock Eagles harmonies that disrupt “I’m Free,” but every song is grounded in that familiar acoustic stew. Drawing from the deep pool of songs the misfit Gano wrote back in high school (where he allegedly wore a bathrobe to class every Monday), it builds on the gangly grooves of their debut, finds new inspiration in the detritus of American pop culture, and finally gets around to the business of growing up.
And for the most part it works. The oddball suicide anthem “Out the Window” sounds like a Gashlycrumb Tinies panel set to music, both humorous and grim as Gano ponders the human inclination toward self-annihilation. “Hey Nonny Nonny” rewrites a staple of 16th-century verse as an outcast’s ode (he really was paying attention in English class), but even better is his rewrite of a much more recent poem: Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” The band alters the lyrics to include some nonsense (“What’s your favorite color of your favorite car?” could be a Marc Bolan pickup line) and to better match Gano’s persona, but that only makes it more affectionate than ironic. He sounds like your friend singing along to the radio and mangling the words, which speaks to something essential about the Violent Femmes: Even when he’s got a clever lyrical conceit, Gano always comes across as relatable, less like a rock star and more like your friend who has a car. Behind his pimpled nihilism lies a disarming sense of empathy.
There is, of course, a fine line between bitter and fucked up, between anguished and sinister. The Violent Femmes toed that line on previous records, but a few moments on Why Do Birds Sing? slip into ugliness. A live favorite from their earliest shows, “Girl Trouble” sounds like the theme to an Elvis beach movie porn parody, but its refrain—“I got girl trouble! Up the ass!”—is juvenile rather than jubilant. “Dance Motherfucker Dance!” is a three-minute joke without a punchline, and “Fat,” a live cut on the bonus disc, entertains an ugly revenge scenario: “I hope you get fat,” Gano taunts, but only so she’ll be less desirable and therefore desperate enough to take him back.
“More Money Tonight,” the album’s climax and the live disc’s encore, remains squirrelly 30 years later, impossible to pin down. “I always felt that I was different, always thought that was good,” Gano sings, and for a brief second you get a sense of him as the bathrobe-clad teenager whose sense of wonder is only just being squelched by the larger world. But then the song descends into a revenge scenario, as he proclaims himself a rock star who’ll “make more money tonight than you’ve ever dreamed of.” Scrawled across the back of his algebra homework, such a lyric might be relatable, but when the Femmes play the song onstage, it seems awfully petty. Gano briefly becomes unsympathetic—a calculating rock star rather than an obsessive fan. On the other hand, this is the Violent Femmes we’re talking about. They weren’t exactly Bon Jovi in the ’80s; they weren’t even Soul Asylum in the ’90s. So maybe they know the joke’s on them for using their modest cult status to mock the haters. It’s certainly powerful to hear so many people singing excitedly along to Gano’s loner anthems, celebrating that feeling of being different that they all have in common.
Buy: Rough Trade
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