I don’t think I’d ever heard of the Violent Femmes before I saw them play at a festival. I was there to see Stone Temple Pilots and Tool, but with them, Primus, Fishbone and the Violent Femmes also played. The VFs were the only one of the lot I wasn’t familiar with. Since I, as an about-to-be high school freshman, had not heard of them, I assumed nobody else had and they were just slipped on the bill as filler. When they started playing, the crowd went absolutely nuts, bounced up and down manically, it was amazing. Even given this, I didn’t really want to like them. Because the lead guitar was acoustic, they struck me as bass-heavy, the vocals were weird and seemed almost novelty. Musically they were weird, I legit didn’t know how to categorize them in my mind. They were like nothing I’d ever heard before. It wasn’t particularly pleasant and as much as I assumed it would be off-putting, I didn’t find it that way either.
Then that fall, they released the Add It Up compilation and some of the moldy oldies they’d been playing since 1983 got regular alternative radio airplay and by Christmas, I was fully under their spell. I asked* for Add It Up for Christmas** and used to carry it around with me in my backpack until the jewel case got so cracked, it wouldn’t stay shut. I think I eventually used scotch tape to keep the two pieces of the front case together.
*The arrangements between a teenager and their parents related to how the teenager would go about getting their parents to purchase specific music for them for Christmas I think was different in every household. In mine, I’d put specific albums on my list, limited to five or six and would usually get all of them. A quirk of our arrangement is that my mom, who did all the rest of the Christmas shopping almost exclusively, would farm this task out to my dad. I can’t begin to try and explain why this makes sense in my family’s case, but it for some reason makes perfect sense to me. Now, when I say “usually,” my dad has a nearly unblemished record of being completely cool about content. He didn’t care about parental advisory stickers or weird shit on album covers or anything like that. The *only* time Dad ever failed me is when I asked for White Zombie’s La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume 1. I wrote it down on my list exactly like that, even though I could have just said “La Sexorcisto” and he probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it. I think I was maybe testing him and I lost.
**I wish I could tell you what else I got that Christmas music-wise but all I remember was Bjork’s Debut and I’m quite certain there were two or three others. Possibly including Tool’s Undertow, but I think that one came from my Uncle Dan.
The songs that received the heaviest rotation on the radio were “Blister in the Sun,” “Kiss Off,” “American Music” and “Add It Up.” I never cared much for “Gone Daddy Gone” despite it being quite memorable as the only pop song I can think of off the top of my head that uses a xylophone in place of a guitar. I think I disliked it because of that. My friends and I adopted “Waiting for the Bus” as our personal anthem because we were always missing/waiting for the bus. “Out the Window” was another standout, which is basically “Kiss Off’s” less-catchy spiritual cousin. In short, that collection captured my imagination in so many different ways, I really had to do some serious soul searching to select “Add It Up” as my very favorite. I got a copy of New Times from COLUMBIA HOOOOUUUSE, an economic decision, not because I heard it was good or anything. It didn’t sound like the songs I loved and when it didn’t grab me right away, I thought maybe their albums weren’t so good? Didn’t pursue any further.
I feel like since they did an official and still ongoing reunion (2013 and hence), I’ve learned that a lot of other people have a soft spot for the Violent Femmes and online chatter has prompted me to go out and get a copy of their first album and HOLY MOLY!! They have ten studio albums and that first self-titled one is really hard to beat. I was shocked to see so many near-and-dear tracks listed on the SAME record. It’s wonderful and I’m sad to have wasted so much time not having the Violent Femmes’ first album on repeat. I haven’t prioritized exploring the rest of their catalog, but it’s on my to-do list. My understanding is that their albums don’t sound at all like each other. I am, as I type, listening to the lead single from my old nemesis New Times and lead single “Breakin’ Up” is just not great. Maybe it’s worth trying again, start to finish. The album, I mean. This song isn’t good. It will never be good.
“Add It Up,” is another one of those songs I love very much that has a very weird structure. It starts out with Gordon Gano’s a capella vocals softly singing a lyric/tune combination that doesn’t seem to have any connection to the first 90% of the song and you have to really stay with it to close the loop. There’s a second-long pause, then the acoustic guitar, drums and bass start and I feel like I use this description a lot but I’m at a loss for anything more accurate, so we’ll go with the instrumentation being bouncy and frenetic.
Then the verses start and they’re simple, repetitive and really lack nuance. “Why can’t I get just one screw? Believe me I know what to do but something won’t let me make love to you.” I guess the chorus is the part where he goes “Day after day, I get angry and I will say…” but that only happens once before we get a fourth verse where he’s for some reason addressing his mother before going into chorus 2, which is “don’t shoot shoot shoot that thing at me” because it’s repeated several times. In verse five we get a description of a household scene with a bunch of nonsense lines peppered in like “the city is restless, it’s ready to pounce,” which I am sure means absolutely nothing, but sounds really good. The payoff finally comes at the very end and it starts with what sounds like a threat and ends in a very satisfying payoff, where we finally know where the song’s title comes in:
I've given you a decision to make
Things to lose, things to take.
Just as she's about ready to cut it up:
She says, "Wait a minute, honey, I'm gonna add it up!"
Add it up! Add it up! Add it up!
THEN, we return to the very beginning with an *aggressive* retread of the very first lines of the song and the loop is closed and we can all sleep well tonight. It’s the most satisfying conclusion to a song I can think of off the top of my head.
The Violent Femmes were kind of peerless, weren’t they? They hail from Milwaukee, Wisconsin (hooooooo!) from which we don't see any enduring musical legacy from the postpunk era. Their genre according to the World Wide Web is “folk punk” which while correct, isn’t much of a thing aside from the Femmes. I scrolled through a few years of their first tours and they played with Killing Joke and the Replacements (and W.A.S.P. in Europe, which I’m only including here for your amusement) but other than that nobody notable shared a bill with them throughout the 1980s. Before Corona, they were scheduled to play the Anthem with X on June 7, which seems SUPER random, but no more random than the Violent Femmes and just about anyone besides the Replacements, maybe. At the time the concert was announced, I paused because we were spending a lot of money on concerts (none of which happened) and had previously declared Kraftwerk or something to be the LAST show in 2020 we’d spend a lot of money on but then of course all of this fell through. My current self is FLOORED at my past self for even considering not attending this. It’s still listed as “postponed,” so fingers crossed I’ll be able to finally see them again in 2022. SIGH.