Reviewed by John Cheek
Back in the '80s, the Violent Femmes were almost the ultimate in cool, hip bands known only to students and to connoisseurs of every page of NME. The fact that lead singer and songwriter Gordon Gano had a Christian faith was often mentioned in fanzine coverage of this quirky, alternative Stateside combo. Gano's solo experiments and appearances with his other band The Mercy Seat have been a result of the Femmes' on-off existence for many years. So any new product under their name is not so much a release as an event. With an off-beat, gently-discordant sound, it's noticeable how samey this three-piece can quickly sound. Their international hit from 1997, "Blister In The Sun", comes close to being reproduced on more than one occasion. It's when the addition of The Horns Of Dilemma and various guest songwriters make their presence felt that the songs on this album start to come alive. Where the sound is otherwise earnest skiffle and rockabilly, The Horns contribute bass cajon, ukulele, mandolin, accordion and tenor sax, among others. Where the lyrics are otherwise dripping with irony to the point of being grating, the arrival of "What You Really Mean", written by Cynthia Gayneau, is a refreshingly soulful break. Equally touching is "Foothills", another example of Gano sharing songwriting duties effectively. Where the album's themes and concerns often appear pitched at a place somewhere on the same terrain as American novelists Garrison Keillor and Flannery O'Connor, the expression of ordinary emotions often in the guise of ordinary people, the Femmes finally and brilliantly engage. Often, the listener is expected to do a lot of work. "I Could Be Anything", with it's marvellous artistry and song construction, including an intro and reprise - and acres of fairy-tale - it could easily be a metaphor for David overcoming Goliath; or wishful-thinking for wanting Donald Trump to be overthrown. Who knows? Also multi-layered in meaning is the standout "Holy Ghost", a haunting warning, it seems, about how the Spirit promises to be present but sadly God's people are absent: "How can I dance when you won't dance/How can I sing when you won't sing with me/How can I bless when you won't pray?" Or it could be just about a guy stood up by a girl. A suspected influence throughout is beat writer Jack Kerouac, judging by the emphasis placed upon travel and journeying, not least with the album closer "I'm Not Done", and Gano's prodigal position of the holy fool: "I was wild in the sight of God/I spared the child and spoiled the rod." Welcome back, the Violent Femmes. As for Gano, the great adventurer of so-called Christian music, what will he do next? Where will he go?
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