Violent Femmes – Hallowed Ground

I spoke yesterday of a band that is considered “stuck in the 90’s”, and on my usual whim, I decided to write about another band that fits that same description. The Violent Femmes, at least according to people more pretentious than myself, are considered “so 90’s”, and surprising for people existing in this decade to still listen to, but I can’t help it, I had never heard The Violent Femmes until about 3 years ago. Even then, I had heard the same album as everyone else, the self-titled debut. Little did I realize that an even better album came right after that:

What the hell is that thing?

Why do I like Hallowed Grounds more than the first album? Well, for one it doesn’t have any songs that have been butchered to death by the radio (though I have made my peace with “Blister In The Sun”, the radio still needs to die), and for two… well… there’s no real reason, I guess. I consider this album put together a bit better, and I like the presence of a full drum kit. I still love Violent Femmes, though, and will probably talk about it sometime.

There’s a prevailing theme in at least the later parts of Hallowed Ground, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s religion, and what better way to start an album that deals with religion than with a murder ballad?

The first track, “Country Death Song” is a delightfully sick song, from its twisted country-bass opening to the actual story of the song. It’s a song about a father living in the country who goes completely nuts from the boredom and decides to kill his daughter. The instruments are really well arranged here, and includes a banjo being plucked in a minor key, which is always a good thing.

The theme of death carries onto the next track, “I Hear The Rain”, which opens up with 3-part harmony, and after 3 distinct vocal parts, ends with the same 3 different vocal parts being sung by each band member simultaneously, which is dash clever. I always love a Violent Femmes song that features the vibrophone as well. At 1 minute and 32 seconds, however, the song may be considered a bit “short”, but at least it never runs the risk of outdoing its welcome, and anyway the next song makes up for it.

Hey sister, have ya heard? Some people stand like trees without a word
And what that means is… some people don’t…
…talk.

“Never Tell” is a song that had to grow on me a bit, as I kind of considered it a spiritual successor to the song “Confessions” from the previous album, and I didn’t like that song. However, “Never Tell” is a good song, and considerably better than its predecessors. It takes a special kind of music fan to appreciates Gordon Gano’s edge-of-sanity stuttering delivery in some of the Femmes’ songs, but I’ve grown to appreciate it. The stuttering is in full effect in this song, as well as Brian Ritchie’s slightly indulgent bass solos, which brings the song down to a bass-and-vocals only part which contains one excellent “sting” with the other instruments when Gano says the line “I will find you… and I will cut you up (screeches)”.

So where does the actual “religion” in this album come in? Right the hell after “Never Tell”, with the song “Jesus Walking On The Water”, a song so completely Baptist-hymn-like that the first reaction might be to crack up laughing at it like “Oh, you guys!”, but check this out: It’s real. Yep, Gordon Gano, the guy who JUST sang about cutting up someone for telling secrets and 2 songs ago sang about killing his youngest daughter, is a gol’dern Baptist Christian. Bet you weren’t expecting THAT, and that’s why Hallowed Grounds is so great. The pure, unadulterated dichotomy of a band who sings about mentally unbalanced violence mixed with some really genuine praise & worship.

However, the next song, “I Know It’s True But I’m Sorry To Say”, uses neither of those themes. It’s more of a regretful love-lost song and is about as slow as a Kindergartner doing math in slow-motion. I get kind of distracted by just how slow this song plods along, so I kind of forget to pay attention to what the lyrics are trying to say, so I might even be wrong about what this song is about. Did I even hear the whole thing? I don’t know. It’s a good thing I’m not a real reviewer, eh?

Then we go back to religion with the song “Hallowed Ground”, which opens with a passage from the Bible itself, and if I were more of a Biblical scholar (or looked at the liner notes) I would probably be able to tell you which verse. I guess it’s the one about making a really good minory rock song, as that’s what this song is. I particularly enjoy the almost baroque-sounding yet simple piano part.

The title of the next song, “Sweet Misery Blues” is pretty much the best thing ever, and I can’t place my finger on why, but it sets up an unrealistic expectation that the song better be nothing short of awesome. The song fully lives up to the challenge. It’s a jaunty blues number featuring wind instruments and amazing lyrics, particularly the catchy recurring lines:

Could I buy you a dress or something?
Could I buy you some jewelry or something?
Would you go out with me or something?
Would you sleep with me… or something?

That’s 4 lines that explain perfectly why I love The Violent Femmes, no-one does “subversive” like these guys. Speaking of which, the best is yet to come:

I dig the black girls, oh so much more than the white girls…

With an old-style swing beat, the band’s arguably greatest song “Black Girls” comes in with a ya-cha-cha attitude and lyrics about black girls. This is one of the craziest songs I’ve ever heard as far as making instruments sound so weird they no longer sound like instruments. There’s an entire horn section that seemed to be put there to give the song that big-band swing feel, but then by the song’s mid-point, they sound as if they are being operated by escaped convicts, one of which got a hold of a Jew’s Harp, and they trade off bizarre solos with the bassist. I absolutely love the break-down, it sounds like one is running through a swingin’ jungle, which I hope is not a dig on black people, but it might be! The whole thing could very well had been the soundtrack to one of those old racist cartoons of the 30’s, or maybe that’s just my experience with such cartoons talking. Either way, more bizarre than any of the crazy instrumental solos in the song is the stanza sung right after:

You know I love the Lord of Hosts
Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
I was so pleased to learn that He’s inside me
In my time of trouble, He will hide me

I have nothing to say to that, just… well done, guys.

The album closes out with a good ol’ hymn that could appear in any hymnal, “It’s Gonna Rain”. It’s a song that, like “Jesus Walking On The Water”, would be such a great bit of satire if it weren’t for the fact that it’s genuine.

All in all, this album serves as a testament to the talent of a band considered by everyone to be a one-hit wonder. Sure, they have the one hit that gets played on the radio every day until we all die, but it’s a real shame that practically no-one cares about the OTHER songs they wrote that are so much better. Though the band went on to make really terrible albums (which I will be talking about, believe me), Hallowed Ground is worth listening to for anyone who liked the debut album for any reason other than that it contains the version of that song Gnarls Barkley covered that is actually good.

 

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