Album: Hallowed Ground
Artist: Violent Femmes
Released: May 14th, 1984
Highlights: Country Death Song, Never Tell, Jesus Walking on the Water, Hallowed Ground
It is always particularly tricky to firmly single out the point when any musical genre came to existence; after all, like it happens in any art form, rather than occurring in a very defined moment, artistic revolutions unfold little by little, with a myriad of previous rhythms and influences slowly being aggregated and transformed into something that is entirely new. Yet, when the Violent Femmes burst into the scene in 1983, carried by a self-titled debut record that would go on to become a cult classic, they did so on a musical mixture that was pretty unique; to the point it would not be wrong to claim they invented it. Led by Gordon Gano, the trio from Milwaukee landed on a genre that was labeled as folk punk, and although that is a name that might bring images of an acoustic troubadour suddenly electrifying their compositions to tackle some balls-to-the-wall rock and roll (much like Bob Dylan did in 1965, only wilder and with some Iggy Pop thrown into the mix), the whole shtick pulled off by the Violent Femmes was quite different.
Gano and his crew did not use electricity, meaning that the folk portion of the genre attributed to them came from the prominent use of a good old acoustic guitar, the instrument around which absolutely all of their tunes were built. The punk half of the equation, then, was left to be mustered by the two other main variables found in the formula of a rock band: composition and performance. Therefore, it was with the use of that pair that the Violent Femmes birthed a thirty-six-minute showcase of how a good deal of reckless abandon, youthful hormones, angry energy, and sharp concise writing could make an acoustic setup be as punk as a The Clash concert or a trip to CBGB in the mid-70s.
If every true punk rocker needs some sort of fire to be burning inside them, then anyone listening to the Violent Femmes’ debut would quickly conclude that, in Gano’s case, the origin of that flame was none other than adolescent sexual desire. While numerous are the bands that have been started and instruments that have been picked up with the goal of hitting it off with a bunch of girls, the Violent Femmes – in that very first album – seemed to be a megaphone for Gano to vent about his frustrations with the opposite sex, be it his heartbreaks, his unstoppable lust for pretty much any female he came into contact with in high school, or his failed attempts to fulfill his desires. It is material that can be horrifyingly embarrassing, sure, but it is music so simple, so irresistibly catchy, so stupidly fun, and so honest that not singing along to it is almost impossible, even if it is with some tongue-in-cheek thrown into the mix.
Imagine the shock, then, when the horny and somewhat light-hearted group from 1983 decided to, in the next year, start singing about Jesus and follow up their successful first effort with a weird and dark work that owes far more to gospel, country, and Gothic music than to folk or punk. That is what “Hallowed Ground” represents, and although the turn is rather abrupt, Gano has downplayed such transformation, claiming that the songs present here were written and ready to go at about the same time as those of the debut and that, in the end, the band had to choose whether they would begin their discography with the catchy acoustic tracks or the disturbing religion-soaked tunes. Given the difference between the two parts, it is a statement that might be hard to believe, but the truth is that the jovial Violent Femmes of the past can still be perceived in “Hallowed Ground”.
No, listeners will not catch Gano crying over a girl who ignores him here; they are far more likely to hear him refer to a bunch of biblical passages. Yet, these are songs certainly written by the same guy who penned “Violent Femmes”. The jittery melodies and quirky vocal hooks, out of which the Pixies would go on to build a career later on, are still present and they tower over the proceedings, turning these mostly gospel tunes into a strange sort of bubblegum rock. Moreover, especially when the album gets to songs that gravitate around acoustic instrumentation, the unique punk demeanor of its predecessor comes to the surface, because although here the unplugged guitar is usually accompanied by extra elements (like a marimba in “I Hear the Rain” and a whole country outfit in “Jesus Walking on the Water”), there is a recklessness to the performances that subconsciously ties “Hallowed Ground” to the debut.
In fact, stemming from that nature is another piece of the puzzle that allows the Violent Femmes to be far from unrecognizable in this second effort, and that would be how it is incredibly hard to tell if Gano is serious or not about his chosen subject. It is not just the inherent abandon of the band that leads to that question; the silly melodies, the exaggerated feelings exposed in the lyrics, and the wacky singing all contribute to that doubt. As such, if in the self-titled album all of those elements caused the Violent Femmes to come off with a veneer of parody and humor as they exposed their sexual woes, in “Hallowed Ground” it can be hard to tell if the religious undertones of the record are meant to be taken with a straight face, which creates an ambiguity that makes the weirdness all the more appealing. Truth be told, Gano himself has said he had a Christian upbringing and that the biblical nods as well as allusions to Jesus, God, and the Holy Ghost are serious. Yet, even armed with that information, a listener can be doubtful because “Hallowed Ground” is simply – and charmingly – very ambivalent.
Nonetheless, as much as it may still hold ties to the band’s past, “Hallowed Ground” undeniably breaks into new ground in multiple ways. The country-flavored acoustic epic tale of “Country Death Song” could, instrumentally, be in the debut, but both its length and its dark five-minute story – which is grounded on the tragedies often tackled by traditional folk music – would make it out of place in that record. Meanwhile, the electric quartet of “Never Tell”, “I Know It’s True but I’m Sorry to Say”, “Hallowed Ground”, and “Black Girls” is even wilder. The first is a Gothic seven-minute multi-phased tune, with a cathartic guitar solo included, that encompasses within it an overwhelming amount of darkness. The second is a gentle gospel ballad that could be sung in a church without many lyrical alterations. The third goes back to sinister Gothic terrain, albeit with a leaner structure. And the fourth, which has some questionable lyrics, is a wild guitar-and-brass jam filled with improvisational goodness.
Due to what came before it, it is awfully hard to judge who exactly “Hallowed Ground” was meant to appeal to. The hormone-filled teenagers that sang along to the Violent Femmes’ first record and probably related to the feelings exposed within it were possibly shocked that their favorite horny songwriter had suddenly decided to write about religion. Simultaneously, the crowd who enjoys gospel music is likely to seek artists that do not make it so dark and that are able to write it in a way that makes their devotion blatant rather than questionable. Yet, strange niche audiences do exist, and for those whose ears are open to the odd overlap between punk performance, folk instrumentation, country tinge, Gothic darkness, and religious imagery, “Hallowed Ground” should be a weird delight, because young Gordon Gano sure knew how to write a great hook, and in the Violent Femmes’ second effort they are as abundant as they were in the band’s debut, even if – here – they are dressed in much stranger colors.