We all know and love them, those basically perfect albums that not even some of the greatest bands have, but when they do, are all anyone can ever talk about despite what greatness may (or may not) come before or after. They’re an Achilles heal really, ‘cos once they reach that point (shall we say musical Nirvana), everything else they ever do will be compared (quite harshly) to that one shining achievement. A few (random) examples would be…
Boston: Boston (1976)
Sarah McLachlan: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (1993)
David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
The Cure: Disintegration (1989)
These aren’t necessarily my favorite albums by these artists, nor their financial, creative or influential peaks, nor am I saying they should have called it quits afterwards. But I am saying that from what I’ve heard and read and from conversations I’ve had with music lovers over the past 20+ years, these are the albums that folks tend to nod to enthusiastically should you bring up said artist. And these could be debated (as always, music is in the ear of the beholder), and for that reason I couldn’t include folks such as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the B-52s (left field, I know). ‘Cos different “experts” will argue that Dylan was over when he went electric, the Beatles when they stopped touring, the Stones when Brian Jones checked out and our friends from Athens before the first album came out. And to all of that I would say, “Incorrect,” but I would also respect that opinion and say this…
How do you follow up a hallmark album? Should you?
The obvious answer is: Yes! And yet often times, with hindsight: No!!!
There’re lots of reasons for this depending on the artist and the viewpoint of the listener. And I’m not here to discuss any of the aforementioned artists or albums, but an album by an artist of whom many, MANY fans include their eponymous debut within the pantheon of ultimate albums and even consider it, as it was with me, an essential rites of passage into the hallowed halls of “alternative” music. That debut album is, obviously, by the Violent Femmes. And I am not here to sing the praises of that album, which are evident and many to so, so, so many people. What I want to do is give a shout out to an album that came out six years later, one that fans overlook and the band seems to pretend doesn’t exist, and that is 3.
Granted, I’ve only met a handful of really hardcore VF fans. Most folks will swear by the debut, give Hallowed Ground or Why Do Birds Sing a familiar wink and possibly own the jumbled compilation Add It Up, but even that is stretching it. In fact I’ve only met two people who have heard anything after Why Do Birds Sing (and I admit I am not one of them) and they agreed with me that 3 was a much underrated classic.
After the multi-instrumental hoot of The Blind Leading the Naked (another minor masterpiece), Gano and the gang scaled things back considerably for 3. That’s not to say it’s a jump back to early classics. This album presents a band that is older, tighter and more in focus with the type of sound they want to create and what they want to say; something that harkens back to previous glories but also looks to where they want to be in coming years. Every song is well crafted (rather than seemingly bashed out for use busking on the streets) and subconsciously catchy. It may take two or six listens, but you’ll find yourself (in my case years after my last listen) singing (and maybe even hip-twisting) along to the opener Nightmares or the slightly Latin-flavored Outside the Palace. And as far as poptastic numbers go, that’s about it. Everything else is a mellower affair…or a more hectic one.
Honestly, it’s a more sobering listen than anything else I’ve heard before or since, and perhaps this is why fans of their quirkier stuff will skip over it. Even when it’s trying to be funny it’s really just coming off as spooky, like the weird guy who lives next door and steps out on his porch every now and then in a bathrobe and black socks…aka Gordon Gano. And a lot of this is due to his vocal delivery. Where it was whiny but endearing when he was ranting out teen angst classics like Please Do Not Go and Promise; delivering this more self conscious set of lyrics, one sometimes feels less of a complaint and more of a threat. And gone are the lost in infatuation (or lust) days of “Why can’t I get just one screw?” It’s obvious now that the objective has been obtained and he’s now experiencing the pains from the back end of a relationship (Nightmares, Telephone Book, Mother of a Girl), and has become cautious, even a bit paranoid about taking another dip in those waters (“What am I gonna do, if I see someone I’d like to do something to…people are dying”). Careless love has changed. This is a world, in 1988, that is still fresh in the panic of AIDS, unsure what to do with this new contagion.
Gordon has always had a touch of a sinister streak, a peppering of violence to give his aching a little more kick. This is usually from a longing to have someone he cannot (pretty much the entire debut), or to get the people roused and ready to overthrow a government in the wrong (Blind Leading the Naked’s Old Mother Reagan, No Killing, etc). But now he doesn’t seem to want anyone for any sweetly romantic purposes, or to sway your political beliefs; his angst has become rage, turning in against family, Just Like My Father (“…he hurt my mother, I hurt her worse!”), and the general public, Fool in the Full Moon (“Following women after dark, nobody knows what’s in my heart…”). Even his faith in God seems a bit shaken. Nothing Worth Living For takes the ache of Good Feeling and drowns it in a sea of doubt, while Lies berates the charlatan practices of not only religious leaders, but the government and literary minds as well. The album closer, See My Ships, seems to sum up his worries, his despair, his anger, his disbelief in three odd minutes of bemoaning, begging the second coming of Christ because he now lives in a world where fathers are killing their sons and we’re living in days of shame in cheap thrills.
This album is edgy and nervous, the thoughts and fears of a paranoid. And yet there are moments of levity (Fat), seeming relief (Dating Days) and even determination in hope (Outside the Palace). But still these aren’t the carefree jangles of earlier days (I Held Her in My Arms, Black Girls, Prove My Love), he’s just trying to find something positive, something to smile about in all the discontentment, but still with a world weary sensibility that can’t help but creep into his voice and lyrics. And Brother Gano’s not really saying it’s all over, but it’s for sure on the way and he is not only powerless to stop it, he may just join in on the carnage.
I got this album in high school, a discarded item from my friend Donnie Wiggington (who also introduced me to the Feelies and the Descendents). His thought was that it basically wasn’t the first album, so why own it? And no, it’s not the first album. There will never, could never be another opener like Blister in the Sun, a riff so immediately recognizable that you could this moment walk into a room a 50 people, ages ranging from 15 to 45, whistle that three note ditty and have 98% of the room: clap-clap, clap-clap. That song is the Femmes’ More Than a Feeling or Ziggy Startdust (or Changes, or Modern Love, or whatever). And the rest of the album pretty much follows that standard, one instant classic after another.
I don’t know what it is about these albums that seem to hit everyone the same way and stand the test of time. Perhaps it’s the batch of songs, the chemistry of the band, the producer, the way the needle (or laser) hits the groove. And while most bands never, ever achieve such fantastic heights again, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have something to offer, something worthwhile, something else that can be respected and enjoyed, just perhaps not in the same universal-fanatic way. And taken on it’s own merit, the Violent Femmes’ 3 is a quiet, understated classic. It’s a band trying to remain relevant in changing times, while still holding on to the peculiarities that got them there in the first place. Most of these tunes won’t make you want to dance, and they surely won’t find you screaming “Everything, everything, everything, everything!!!” at the top of your lungs, and they won’t even get you up in arms, ready to take on the dark forces of your world. But what they do have to offer is for those in a pensive, sullen mood, ready for some reflection, ready for someone to voice the frustration you’re feeling, and you can sing along as well.
You can get it for cheap…
You can hear a truly danceable tune…
There’s a video for Nightmares, but unfortunately youtube.com doesn’t seem to have it…the heck??? But here’s a “video” for the studio-live blend of Lies from the Add It Up comp…