Monday, February 9, 2009

Song of the Week: The Violent Femmes - Country Death Song

Some songs just stay with you like syphilis. No matter how hard you want it to go away, it stays and persists. It festers and rattles around the brain and won't go away no matter how hard you wish. That is the case for me with this installment of Song of the Week.

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.


  1. I remember this song- so disturbing. Really freaked my friends and me out at the time. It always made me think of Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown" but with an extra dose of depravity.

  2. I thought the last line of the song was, "I'm going out to the barn and hang myself in shame".

  3. It is. Right after the "Will I never stop the pain?" line. Click and listen again,

  4. hey, JB, were you the one who went with me to see them at C-Street North in '83. A small place in Sacramento that was more floor space than it was music hall? A band from Davis named The Digg or something like that opened up for them. About 20 people (at most!) in the audience and the Femmes played all their songs and dorked around on the Brady Bunch theme and Batman saying they didn't know any more songs. I thought it was you and Jack, but can't say for sure.

  5. No,unfortunately that was not me. Yet another thing I missed out on when I moved to Benicia in January of 83'. If it was the fall of 1983,I would have been in Minnesota. I recall Aaron Pott saying he saw them play in an old warehouse in Sac. I think this might have been in 84' when they were considerably more popular.

  6. gosh darn it. who was that with? I thought it was Jack, but he said no. Maybe it was some of the Barneys crowd. Like Fleming and Geoff Ponting.

  7. While in high school, a band I was in covered this song. I'd never heard it before, and, being personally immersed in loud-fast-angry-type stuff, I was underwhelmed. (I also didn't pay much mind to lyrics in those days, and even if I did, the lyrics to this songs probably would have gone over my 17-year-old head.) Furthermore, I didn't think we as a band did the song justice, though we gave it our best. Since then I think I've always had perhaps not negative but ambivalent notions of this song.

    However, listening to it now is quite a revelation. It is definitely a harrowing narrative, and is musically quite good. This song, and bands like the Pogues, are good examples of music that was just too much for my young mind to appreciate. But as I've gotten older, I understand why they are so revered.

  8. I didn't get a chance to say how I have long touted this album as being an underrated gem.

    That first record is deservedly regarded as a classic. It is great from start to finish. It is also an album that appealed to everyone of a certain age, be they punks,jocks,rockers,geeks,whatever.

    Such was its overwhelming popularity that everyone was greatly anticipating "Violent Femmes 2",and god bless em, they delivered anything but.

    Can't tell you how many times I heard, "I love the Violent Femmes, but I hate that new record" or "No,I haven't heard the new album. My friends tell me it sucks." It was a sophmore album that was universally rejected by everyone save maybe a small, perhaps more open-minded, percentage of their fanbase.

    I am not one who generally likes it when bands try and depart too much from their sound on the seoond album just to be contrarians. Often times groups over reach in their ambtions and fall flat on their faces or else self-consciously make a real noisy, deliberately uncommercial record that really is just an indication that they didn't have as many good songs this time around. Often the statement "It's nothing like our first album" can be a genuine warning sign that it is going to be a let-down. Not so with "Hallowed Ground".

    The album is experimental enough but is still the work of the same band. "Country Death Song", "It's Going To Rain", "I Know It's True But I'm Sorry To Say", "Black Girls" and the title track are all brilliant and diverse songs. I think people were turned off by the fact that the band were playing in bluegrass,gospel and experimentally jazzy styles, as well as not getting the angst-ridden lyrics detailing sexual frustration and romance of the first album that were instantly and universally understood by its audience.

    I still believe the first album is better,but "Hallowed Ground" is due for a reevaluation by those who quickly dismissed it before. Forgotten near-classic for sure.

    Very amusing to hear that the Barney's staff flipped out over the album and banned it. Davis was always a little suffocatingly PC. And the vertical turntable? The washing machine. I had almost forgotten about that.

  9. Perfect Album for me, when i heard Never Tell ...

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Anon. It's been awhile since I heard that song, so I just spun it again, thanks to you. That is one dark, epic song.