Graded on a Curve: Violent Femmes,
Hallowed Ground

If the 1983 self-titled debut by Violent Femmes is one of the hot half-dozen expressions of Teen Angst American Style ever waxed, then Hallowed Ground, the group’s still divisive second effort from the following year is one of rock music’s core texts in how to successfully flout expectations. It still succeeds greatly as a document of nervy conceptual growth and as a major breakthrough in terms of individual musicianship.

A lingering wisdom about Violent Femmes’ first album is that it inevitably landed squarely in the lap of any ‘80s teen that had grasped just how inescapably miserable was the struggle of growing up; the isolation, the hopelessness, the short highs followed by extended lows, the sexual overload, the distasteful omnipresence of authority. Instead of just internalizing this knowledge many naturally flaunted their alienation over this unrelentingly oppressive environment via haircuts, clothing choices, and most importantly artistic taste.

The strategic reading of Catcher in the Rye on park benches aside, music has proven a startlingly effective way of expressing that unsubtle concept of Not Fitting In. Indeed, music has long been synonymous with youth in revolt, and if circa 1985 one spied a surly, disheveled teen sauntering along the sidewalks of some suburban landscape with a sticker covered backpack and a Walkman, it was a safe bet that they were carrying a cassette copy of Violent Femmes in the pocket of their tattered thrift-store trench coat.

A true rite of passage, it was also an LP so ubiquitous that I have no recollection of hearing it for the first time; once someone was identified as belonging to the great brigade of young non-conformists it was inevitable that a more experienced member of this community would lend a helping hand and expose the newcomer to the alluring strains of Midwestern anxiety.

And the record was a staple in the store racks throughout my high school years, with vinyl, tapes and then poorly mastered CDs perpetually waiting for kids to scrape together enough cash to purchase their own prized copy. It was a case of a tape dupe being simply inadequate. Throw in the impatience and tempestuousness of its target audience and Violent Femmes very likely makes the Top Ten Most Shoplifted Records of All Time.

So goes the story and if stopped there it kinda falls into the territory of romantic cliché. For not all disaffected kids dug the Femmes back then. For instance some of my peers, specifically the ones under the heavy sway of The Cure and New Order and The Smiths and Bauhaus (I think it’s safe to call them Anglophiles) considered the sounds made by singer/guitarist Gordon Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie, and drummer Victor DeLorenzo to be decidedly retrograde.

If that sounds like the stirrings of hipper than thou posturing, please consider in these detractors’ defense that the Femmes basically utilized the same instrumentation employed by Elvis Presley on his Sun Sessions album. And Violent Femmes is also one of the few legit examples of a folk-punk synthesis that paved the way for College Rock and the Alternative Nation, a fact that didn’t endear it to many under the sway of hardcore’s raucous and often didactic din. Or for that matter the indie diehards and the older, heard it before naysayers, many of whom wrote for fanzines and dismissed the group as derivative of The Modern Lovers and to a lesser extent Lou Reed.

After getting out of high school in one piece I went something like half a decade without hearing that first Femmes album. And when I did return to it I couldn’t help sharing some of that older, wiser perspective, reevaluating that its contents weren’t the deathless dulcet tones so many of us lacking in the necessary experience and insights once so assuredly thought.

Truthfully, listening again brought out the music’s embarrassing side and the fact that at this early stage the band was willing to coast on sheer nerve instead of raw talent. But embarrassing is no crime (just ask any well adjusted grown-up fan of Misfits) and getting by on nerve instead of skill sounds like punk rock’s raison d’être. In summation, Violent Femmes is a flawed, somewhat overrated, platinum-selling classic.

Curiously, the record by the band that instilled the most embarrassment, or discomfort, or misunderstanding, or even hostility in the decade of its release is the document that stands up best today. By around ’87 or so Hallowed Ground had been cast aside as a misfire by most and championed by a select few as a major step forward from a trio that had bigger ideas than just rewriting “Blister in the Sun” and “Add it Up” to consistently diminishing returns.

I say that Hallowed Ground was embarrassing because even to an inexperienced kid from the sticks its opening track “Country Death Song” was impossible to not hear as minstrelsy. Gano may have been the son of a Baptist minister, but his background was far from the Wisconsin Death Trip-styled narrative the song presents; he most assuredly didn’t drown his daughter in a well. The themes plastered all over the first album were unsurprising and in retrospect rather predictable in how they engaged with the prurient. The disturbing in your face morbidity of “Country Death Song”’s role-play on the other hand could really inspire a spell of the fidgets.

For many that sense of embarrassment easily grew into sustained discomfort, mainly due to tracks like “Jesus Walking on the Water” and album closer “It’s Gonna Rain.” These two examples of unabashed Christian gospel intent were certain to wreak havoc on the tender young Doubting Thomases that populated the Femmes’ legion of fans. That is, the ones who weren’t erroneously chalking it up to parody. But that’s a possible complication when choosing to open an album with an obvious child-murdering fiction; you run the risk of people getting the wrong idea.

And this sense of potential misunderstanding is one of Hallowed Ground’s defining traits. It’s a record that shifts wildly in tone from track to track, and unlike their debut refuses to settle into one specific mode. Instead, “Country Death Song” summons the Old Weird America decades before it came into vogue (and features Tony Trischka on banjo), “Jesus Walking on the Water” exhumes the celebratory aura of the tent revival (complete with a solid fiddle solo from Gano), and “It’s Gonna Rain” plumbs into a more modern and polished strain of gospel, deftly blending elements from the Caucasian and African-American sides of the tradition. All of the above obviously left scads of listeners downright confused.

The thing about confusion is that it often sours into hostility. On more than a few occasions did I suffer a cohort denigrating Hallowed Ground as a travesty, and once I even witnessed a cassette copy getting reprehensibly chucked out of a moving car window. What a foul litterbug. And what’s disturbing about this level of dislike is how the record actually includes a pair of tracks that extend and solidly improve upon the sensibility of Violent Femmes.

The first is “Never Tell,” which takes the choppy atmosphere of the previous LP’s “Do the Kill” and hones it to near perfection. It shapes up as one of the finest examples of Gano’s ability to transform into a devastatingly effective front-man and also serves to pinpoint just how crackerjack these gents were as a band. And for that matter, so does the title cut, which opens with a little bit of Morrison-esque spoken word action, Gano hinting that he might just run roughshod and “petition the lord with pray-ah” before the band kicks in, and with piano lending increased musical fluency.

Perhaps the problem was that the Femmes were interested in extension and not rehash. “I Know It’s True but I’m Sorry to Say” ends side one in a manner not dissimilar to Violent Femmes’ closing track “Good Feeling,” except it’s considerably less maudlin and a fair bit more grown up. “I Hear the Rain,” replete with Ritchie’s swell marimba manages to up the eerie ante on the preceding LP’s “Gone Daddy Gone,” and what the first disc’s “Please Do Not Go” did for doo-wop inflected street corner busking, “Sweet Misery Blues” does for slyly urbanite blues, inflected as it is with some sophisto clarinet tooting that might even get a small nod of approval from a stodgy old head like Woody Allen. But hey, don’t bet on it.

“Black Girls” however sorta beckons as Hallowed Ground’s eternal centerpiece of the abandonment of the safety zone. Some folks these days like to champion it as a statement of political incorrectness, but I don’t hold much truck with that concept as I don’t think it was the Femmes’ intention. Instead it still seems like a highly legit topic for a brief bout of songic celebration and some unserious playground smack talk. Furthermore, it’s a grand way to get the skronky alto sax (and game calls!) of John Zorn (as part of the Horns of Dilemma) into the mix, and the track establishes for certain that Brian Ritchie plays a mean Jew’s harp. Just in case you were wondering.

In 1986 came the lesser if not at all bad The Blind Leading the Naked and then a short hiatus. That same year saw the issue of Ritchie and DeLorenzo’s work with North Carolinian guitar master Eugene Chadbourne on the terrific Corpses of Foreign War LP, and Ritchie put out a bunch of interesting solo paraphernalia on the SST imprint back when it seemed that label was releasing ten albums a month. Before the decade had ended the band had reconvened, but to my ear most of the early spark had been lost as they quickly became an Alternative institution based almost wholly on a few songs from that first record.

By my last year in high school I’d cozied up nice to the charms of Violent Femmes’ second slab. In fact, it combined with the oddball qualities of Camper Van Beethoven’s Telephone Free Landslide Victory as a double doorway out of the constraints of rock music’s overplayed tropes. But these days Hallowed Ground just sounds excellent, which is all a listener can fairly ask for.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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