Retro review: The Violent Femmes 'The Blind Leading the Naked'

The third album from the band is brilliant.
2023 Darker Waves Festival
2023 Darker Waves Festival / Scott Dudelson/GettyImages

I was getting ready to write a review of the deluxe edition of the Violent Femmes self-titled debut. That album, which celebrates its 40-year anniversary in 2023, is a landmark expansion of punk. It proved that acoustic punk could be no less angry and edgy than its electric forefather.

What Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo were doing with guitars in Sonic Youth, Gordon Gano was doing with his voice. He wasn’t interested in fidelity or purity. He was interested in wringing every last molecule of emotion out of his instrument. Gano couldn’t sing – not in the traditional sense. But he never let that stop him.

Violent Femmes hit a niche hard. It produced a series of minor hits that have stood up very well over time. Several have become classics. The new deluxe edition offers demos and live versions of standard-bearers like "Blister in the Sun," "Add It Up," and "Gone Daddy Gone." They are great fun.

But I often find that deluxe editions like this are good for a single listen to pick up an interesting developmental tidbit or hear an unguarded live moment. I rarely go back and listen to such recordings more than that first time.

Violent Femmes created a titanic achievement

But as I was listening, I felt inspired to give another listen to VF’s third album, The Blind Leading the Naked. And I was reminded of what a titanic achievement it was. I never should have forgotten.

Released in 1986, and produced by Jerry Harrison (of the Talking Heads), TBLTN expanded the Femmes in all directions. Gano’s songs were much more outward-looking than the navel-gazing self-pity of the debut. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.) Genres spilled all over the map, from punk to gospel, and the instrumentation widened considerably. A lot of that had to do with Harrison’s involvement, which was something foisted upon the band by their label. They didn’t like it. But the results are undeniable.

TBLTN is bookended by two remarkable songs, both under a minute long. The opener, "Old Mother Reagan," is a blistering political takedown in just 32 seconds. It is one of the best opening tracks of any 1980s rock album. The album closes with the sweet love song "Two People," which sounds an awful lot like Lou Reed’s more sentimental moments with the Velvet Underground.

The echoes of Reed are all over TBLTN. Apart from Jonathan Richman, no one picked up on the challenge Reed had laid out better than Gano and his bandmates Brian Ritchie (bass) and Victor DeLorenzo (drums). That challenge suggested that neither vocal purity nor instrumental virtuosity was essential to making music if you wrote clever songs and served them up with passion and wit.

Gano followed the ultra-brief opening track with five minutes of equally political raging on "No Killing." Musically, this is a throwback to the debut album, with its false, slow intro morphing into speed and rage. But this is somewhat more controlled, with Gano coming close to actually singing. And what he is singing about is where the real growth is apparent. This is an anti-war song, and though it doesn’t rival the sophistication of the best of that genre, it is quite a leap forward for an artist who was previously concerned almost entirely with his own adolescent absorption.

If that song signaled a shift in direction, the third track is a virtual 180 from the righteous indignation of "Kiss Off" from the debut. "Faith" (not the George Michael "Faith"), is a bluesy rocker full of gospel belief. Both songs describe a singer who doesn’t care about how society views him. But the lonely isolation of "Kiss Off" (“You all can just kiss off into the air – Behind my back, I can see them stare”) has morphed into the serenity of “No matter where a child may roam – That child is gonna have a home.” And we get horns and sax and harmonica all backing it up. It’s as if J. Geils found religion.

But then we are in pure ‘60’s surf rock territory with the "Breakin’ Hearts." Now Gano and company are some sort of bazarro-world Beach Boys. And the amazing thing is, it all works.

Special is a return to the debut’s Velvet Underground brand of rocker, though I have to give Gano credit for inserting a callback to Merle Travis’ blue-collar protest anthem "Sixteen Tons" as seamlessly as he does.

"Love & Me Make Three" proves that Brian Ritchie couldn’t sing any better than Gano, and that it didn’t matter. His guttural growl suits the swamp-gospel which takes all the money grubbers to task. Apart from one cover, which comes later, this is the only track Gano did not write. It doesn’t have his characteristic playfulness and is a little heavier than typical Femmes’ fare. But it also has the good sense to stop after two minutes, and offers one great takedown of corporate religion – “Christ is crying outside your church door – Don’t let him in, he’ll get mud on your floor.”

The final track on the original side one, "Candlelight Song," is the farthest the Femmes would roam from their original ethos. Harrison fills the quiet contemplation of life and death with plenty of novel instruments, mostly from percussionist Abdulhameed Alwan and the experimental guitarist Fred Frith. Personally, I don’t think it works at all, but I have to credit the band for dabbling in world music before world music was cool.

Side two kicks off with as traditional a pop song as the band ever recorded. "I Held Her in My Arms" could be Springsteen, with its prominent Steve Mackay sax driving things. And. wonders of wonders, Gano actually sings, and he doesn’t do half bad.

Then comes one of the album’s true highlights. Their cover of T. Rex’s "Children of the Revolution" is better than Marc Bolan’s original. T. Rex leans a bit toward the ponderous. Violent Femmes maintain the song’s anthemic quality, but their natural wiry energy livens it up. So do the touches of a gospel choir.

"Good Friends" is a marginal track. But it’s instructive. It begins slowly, like so many of Gano’s compositions do. But when he turns up the energy, it isn’t morphing into an angry diatribe about teenage life or the screwed-up world of politics and greed. It’s a rather sad love song about friendzoning. Again, this is Gano as a somewhat low-rent Lou Reed, but the song provides a nice balance on such an eclectic album.

Heartache could also be a Reed track, but this is the high energy of "I Love You Suzanne" or "Sally Can’t Dance." This is territory Gano and mates know very well, and they kill it. It’s a minor song, but a gem nonetheless.

"Cold Canyon," the final track before the aforementioned closer, is just classic Violent Femmes. The song pulses with Gano’s energy and DeLorenzo’s relentless drum. It also gets extra texture from Leo Kotke’s wildman acoustic slide guitar.

Whether you prefer the debut or The Blind Leading the Naked, it remains a disappointment that the Violent Femmes never did anything as consistently good as their third album again. They produced plenty of good tracks over the years, but their sound never really advanced. Maybe they needed a Jerry Harrison to push them out of their comfort zone. Hard to know for sure. But there’s no denying that back forty years ago, they produced two sensational albums. A lot of people know about the newly re-released Violent Femmes, now in a deluxe edition. More people ought to know about The Blind Leading the Naked.

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