In the early ’80s, three Wisconsin guys fresh out of high school dubbed themselves Violent Femmes, borrowed money to record an album, and created a weird little masterpiece that’s resonated with disaffected teens for decades.
Singer/guitarist Gordon Gano and bassist Brian Ritchie have changed drummers, broken up, and reunited from time to time, but they’re remained dedicated to their idiosyncratic, minimalist aesthetic. With the new album Hotel Last Resort out a few weeks ago, Violent Femmes are on a co-headlining summer tour with Ben Folds that will bring them to the Surly Brewing Festival Field on Wednesday. In anticipation of the show, enjoy our playlist of deep cuts from 9 of the band’s 10 studio albums. (The exception, 1995’s Rock!!!!!, was only released in Australia, where the band consistently charts higher than it does in America.)
Violent Femmes was released the same week as R.E.M.’s Murmur, April 1983, which may as well stand as the official dawn of college rock’s golden age. But while most of their postpunk peers were experimenting with distortion pedals and reverb, Violent Femmes remained proudly acoustic, more in line with Jonathan Richman’s solo work than the Modern Lovers. Many of the band’s signature songs were played on nothing but an acoustic guitar, an acoustic bass, and a minimal drum set consisting of a snare and a metal washtub, including the debut’s anthems “Blister in the Sun” and “Add It Up.” But every track on the album is a gem, Including the ballad “Good Feeling,” which was christened a dorky couple’s perfect wedding song in a 2006 episode of How I Met Your Mother.
The debut was a sleeper hit, traveling from dorm room to dorm room, taking four years to go gold and eight to go platinum. No Violent Femmes album since has sold remotely as much, but they’ve enjoyed a long career as a cult band, writing morbid tunes like “Country Death Song” that established Gordon Gano’s dark sense of humor. They signed with Warner Bros. in 1986 and scored a string of modern rock radio hits up through the mid-‘90s, occasionally with amps and a full drum set. And after disbanding entirely for a few years, Violent Femmes reunited in 2013 and went on to release two new albums. Hotel Last Resort’s title track features guitar work from Television frontman Tom Verlaine, perhaps one of the most significant antecedents to Gano’s nervous, reedy singing.
Brian Ritchie, who gave his first lead vocal performance on 1986’s “Love & Me Make Three,” has long been credited with the wilder avant-garde influences on Violent Femmes albums, occasionally playing xylophone and the shakuhachi, a style of bamboo flute traditionally associated with Japanese folk music. Throughout the ‘80s, they invited experimental musicians like John Zorn and Fred Frith to play on their albums. In 2000 Freak Magnet featured a Ritchie-sung cover of “New Generation,” free-jazz trailblazer Albert Ayler’s 1964 collaboration with R&B singer/songwriter Rose Marie McCoy. And in later years, Violent Femmes have even added a saxophonist of their own to the lineup, with Blaise Garza making the band a quartet since 2004.
Ben Folds, Violent Femmes
Where: Surly Brewing Festival Field
When: 5 p.m. Wed. Aug. 14
Tickets: 18+; $49.50: more info here