Review: A Highlight of the Violent Femmes’ Catalog Gets a Classy Expanded Overhaul

Violent Femmes
Why Do Birds Sing?-Deluxe Edition
(Craft Recordings)
4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Calling the Violent Femmes’ fifth album from 1991 a “return to their roots” is too much of a journalistic cliché to feel comfortable with. But there is little doubt that this was the feeling when the threesome entered the studio with producer Michael Beinhorn for the sessions that resulted in some of the Milwaukee-based band’s finest and most energized music since their genre-defining 1983 debut. Oddly, even though it became the group’s most successful release since its first, Why Do Birds Sing? was also the last the original trio recorded together when co-founder/percussionist Victor DeLorenzo left soon afterward.

This back to basics approach was particularly pertinent as the Femmes decided to finally record at least four tracks written earlier and in their live sets for nearly a decade. Some like “Life is a Scream,” “Flamingo Baby,” and especially “Girl Trouble” were around since the earliest days of their career. Others like “Lack of Knowledge” were played in concerts. Add their hit cover of Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” (where frontman Gordon Gano changed some key words in nearly every verse), for about a third of the album’s initial 13 selections having already been penned. That served the purpose of not just laying down these items for posterity but summoning the energy they were created in, a spirit some felt had dissipated over the years.

Singer/songwriter/guitarist frontman Gordon Gano’s dry, jittery humor and adenoidal vocals in “American Music” were married to strong, often riff-driven melodies like the ones that initially found the group cult-like fame on their first album. He’s still having “Girl Trouble” as much of the material finds him in similar romantically dissatisfied situations he moaned about 10 years earlier. His typically quivering vocals on the angry, dark “More Money Tonight” convey lyrics that boast to the high school kids who once picked on him that he now out-earns them as a rock star they respect.       

This edition adds six studio recordings, a few B sides, and early/demo versions, some of which appeared on future sets, expanding it to over an hour of prime material. A second platter unearths a frustratingly brief 50-minute live show from 1991 (could the compilers not find 20 more minutes of material?), the same year as the set’s appearance, although only three of its songs are played.

A nearly nine-minute version of the first album’s “Confessions” transforms it by inserting an avant-garde jazz/folk section that’s experimental and unusual, broadening the band’s already elastic boundaries. The Femmes push all the buttons on an animated, sexually frustrated “Add It Up” maximizing its jagged power. That’s contrasted with the sweet “Good Feeling,” which displays Gano’s less visible tender side. It’s a professionally recorded and sharply structured show balancing music from all their releases.    

Detailed liner notes, specifically written for this package, cover not just the recording of the album and song explanations by Gano and bassist Brian Ritchie, but a comprehensive Femmes capsule history. Although break-ups occurred occasionally over the decades (there were some ugly court cases about songwriting royalties too), the Violent Femmes 40 years on, stay active today. They remain an edgy three-piece playing key cuts from Why Do Birds Sing? in current concerts as a highlight of their impressive and still growing catalog.

The Violent Femmes photo by Hanson         

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