Sharps & Flats

The Violent Femmes could never get laid, but a new live set remembers that the trio wrote definitive mash songs.

Published December 20, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Suddenly Wisconsin is hot. The state university's football team is headed to the Rose Bowl for the second straight year, this time with the Heisman Trophy winner on its side. The pro squad from Green Bay is so good that otherwise intelligent folks wear large, triangular, mock-cheese hats in solidarity. Twice in David Lynch's newest movie, "The Straight Story," the title character, Alvin Straight, tells someone he's headed to Wisconsin to visit his brother and gets the same response: "Wisconsin? I hear that's a big party state."

Last October, once-ferocious folkies the Violent Femmes returned to their home state to find out just how much fun could be had in Wisconsin. For six straight nights, at assorted venues, the threesome rattled through jumpy, acoustic sets, backed occasionally by five madly tweetering gentlemen called the Horns of Dilemma. The result is the energetic live compilation "Viva Wisconsin."

Ever since their self-titled debut in 1983, the Violent Femmes have been an unlikely party band. Singer/guitarist Gordon Gano, with that somehow engaging, nasally voice, still whines like he's not getting any, even though his records have provided great make-out music for teens with bad haircuts for over 15 years. Now, it sounds as if he's been stuck in adolescence, waiting for his voice to break, while the world flashed forward in a Viagra-blue streak of progress. That division is temporarily resolved during an audience-heavy a cappella sing-along on "Blister in the Sun," a track that still bats cleanup for the angst anthem all-star team. Everyone knows the lines: "When I'm a-walkin'/I strut my stuff/And I'm so strung out." The crowd chants along as hungrily as a pack of wild fashion models. Wow: Wisconsin really is a great party state.

Drawing heavily from their first two LPs -- 10 of the 20 songs are from the 1983 release or "Hallowed Ground" (1984) -- "Viva Wisconsin" delivers unevenly for crowds that sound lustily lubed on Milwaukee's best. But whether it's '83 or '03, the Femmes seem forever capable of summoning a uniquely insouciant form of clever rock. Guy Hoffman's snare-tilted drumming springs the CD to life on the opening "Prove My Love." Peppily rat-tat-tatting along, Hoffman's playing sounds like a man attempting to brush saloon schmutz off his drum set with a fistful of shoelaces. Brian Ritchie's bass runs fall in as curiously plump as a collagen-lipped
kiss. For his part, Gano simply seems to be trying to break one guitar string per song.

When the Femmes stray from early hits, they frequently find trouble, which has been the case across the half-dozen or so records since that first album. "Don't Talk About My Music (Shut Your Mouth)" features grunting, alarmingly metal-minded vocals. There is too much flute noodling, a distracting saxophone space-jam and even a drum solo -- yes, a drum solo -- on "Black Girls."

By ending the disk with three aces -- the xylophone-laced "Gone Daddy Gone," the post-puberty rave-up "Add It Up" and an apropos closer, "Kiss Off" -- the band leaves its audience bopping to the exit. Their genuine pleasure in playing translates so readily to this live recording that you want to forgive them for never again making as great a record as their first.

By Mac Montandon

Mac Montandon is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.

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