The Violent Femmes have been producing their own eclectic punk-folk racket for 33 years now. On their (surprisingly commercially successful) first album, they were almost unique in doing what was essentially Clash-style punk rock with acoustic instrumentation in the early eighties, when most self-identifying punks had either sold out, moved on or backed themselves into a corner musically trying to see who could be more ‘hardcore’. As it turns out, the band’s ragged, high energy approach still works today, and is still in evidence in some of their latest offering, ‘We Can Do Anything’. However, whilst age and experience have had the effect of diversifying and mellowing their style, some of the tracks on the album do come over as being a bit tired.
On the first track, ‘Memory’, it’s evident that most of the Femme’s stylistic markers are still in place- it’s a catchy little song with a simple arrangement and chord structure consisting mainly of Gordon Gano‘s chugging acoustic rhythm guitar. However, the song’s subject (reminiscences, in particular, clouded by a foggy memory caused by years of touring and the attendant ‘rock and roll lifestyle’) is something that only an older artist would come out with.
The album’s almost-title track ‘I Can Do Anything’ strikes a more jaunty, whimsical mood. The song’s wilfully silly lyrics about dragons and kings are an example of the theatrical streak that characterises some of their later output. Musically, aside from a sing-along chorus, it’s fun, but doesn’t match the greatness of songs from earlier in their career.
Also notable by it’s absence are the exciting, frenetic bass-playing that once gave the Femmes a lot of their energy. Brian Richie’s bass now shows little of the flair of their first few albums, and rarely stands out. Where this could have given space to some more instruments (and there are a few – banjo, accordion and some brass fatten up the sound), in practice it takes the punch out of a lot of the songs.
Gordon Gano’s voice, is, as ever, a versatile and interesting instrument when given the right song. It’s changed over time, and no longer communicates the shivery, nervy sexuality it once did. Instead, he’s adapted to a sound that occasionally sounds reminiscent of Lou Reed, and even has a few Dylan-like cadences (‘Memory’, ‘I’m not Done’). Most surprising is the odd Springsteen-esque effect created on ‘What You Really Mean’- a song that has a lot in common with ‘The Boss’ in terms of song-writing. ‘Travelling Solves Everything’ and ‘Big Car’ are both songs about the escapism of getting away from home, with the first track using a sixties surf-rock melody with the addition of backing-shouts injecting a bit of the old punk energy back into the record.
The Violent Femmes have been treading their own musical path for a long time now, and whilst they continue to do so with ‘We Can Do Anything’, it’s evident that time has slowed them down somewhat; the album doesn’t sound nearly as fresh as their first, 33 years later. In spite of this, it’s still a decent record with some fun moments, and one that should be able to hold it’s own reasonably well in appraisals of their work.
‘We Can Do Anything’ is out now on PIAS America
This Violent Femmes review was written by David Rodgers, a Gigsoup contributor. Edited by Stephen Butchard.