The song is by Milwaukee, Wisconsin's Violent Femmes, a truly original group who wove some heavy threads through the mosaic of independent music in the 1980's. If they had only recorded that one, first album, they would be legendary enough. It's a fantastic album from groove one to groove last. But the Femmes continued to produce and continued to put out remarkable music. In 1984, the year after their self-titled debut took over the college radio stations without mercy, the threesome put out a surprising sophomore effort entitled Hallowed Ground.
When this record came out I was working at a record store in Davis, California called Barney's. I put the album on our famous vertical turntable and headed for the bins to file records. It became instantly clear to me that this was not just a resuscitation of the debut. Here the band of teenagers (or maybe they were 20 at this time) expanded the music landscape to incorporate abstract jazz (Black Girls) and Appalachian bluegrass. Religious imagery of death, salvation and redemption stiff armed the college listener. Before the side was out, I was informed that I could not play the record anymore. The record had -- in less than 5 songs -- offended a lesbian coworker, an African American coworker and an Atheist coworker and had garnered an official complaint from a customer. Pretty impressive, huh?
I think you'll see why from our Song of the Week. The song is Country Death Song, the first song on the criminally underrated album. A traditional "ump-pah" beat is importantly colored by minor-key banjo work from Tony Trischka to create an Appalachian folk song mystique. Gordon Gano sings in the first-person narrative as a father who is pushed by famine and isolation to, as he says in the second verse, "start making plans to kill my own kind." Immediately it becomes all to clear as to the depth of his depravity as we listen uncomfortably as he coaxes his youngest daughter to the door late at night: "Come little daughter, I will carry the lanterns/We'll go out tonight, we'll go to the caverns. We'll go out tonight, we'll go to the caves. So kiss your mother goodnight and remember that God saves."
The daughter is blissfully ignorant as to her fate. We are not so lucky. And there-in lies the tension. We are helpless to stop the licentious father and unravel his insanely gruesome demonstration of love. "You know your papa loves you, good children go to heaven." Gano gives us no quarter as he makes abundantly clear what happens as he sings with a cross-eyed whisper. Only the two-note bass riff and a snare drum played with brushes by Victor DeLorenzo provide us any cover.
"I gave her a push, I gave her a shove. I pushed with all my might, I pushed with all my love. I threw my child into a bottomless pit. She was screaming as she fell, but I never heard her hit."
As we are left to make sense of the unpleasantness in our ears, the repetitive polka beat gives way to a mad crush of chaotic music led by the beautiful acoustic bass work of Brian Ritchie.
Gano returns with the most beautifully acrid line of the song. A song that puts teen angst in it's rightful place: "Don't speak to me of lovers with a broken heart. You wanna know what can really tear you apart? I'm going out to the barn, will I never stop the pain?"
Ain't nothing for a man to do but sit around and drink.