Music Review: Violent Femmes debut, a cult favorite, turns 40 with an expanded new edition

In 1983, Milwaukee trio Violent Femmes released their self-titled debut, an album that would quickly enter the college-rock pantheon for its spirited acoustic punk.

Forty years later, Craft Recordings has released a deluxe edition of the record, in which the cult band turns back the clock to a moment of intense creative output.

“Violent Femmes (Deluxe Edition),” out Friday, is a competent remaster and a brilliantly curated collection of artifacts, with more than a dozen demos, B-sides and live performances. The collection works to capture the band’s energy, humor, and in the live recordings, their intense audience connection.

In the ‘80s, Violent Femmes recorded their debut on the cheap, capturing most of the tracks on the first take. The remaster cleans up their work nicely. Alternate versions of popular favorites such as “Blister in the Sun,” “Gone Daddy Gone,” and “Add It Up” all sound crisp without sacrificing the band’s messy intensity.

The gem of the collection is the live recordings, curated from two 1981 Milwaukee shows and one 1983 New York City performance.

In Violent Femme’s early days, frontman Gordon Gano was a teenager, and therefore could not play at his local Milwaukee clubs. So, the band did the next best thing and honed their craft as street buskers with acoustic instrumentation. The live tracks on “Violent Femmes (Deluxe Edition)” hint at how audience reaction informed their unpredictable, organic sound. No wonder they would later influence bands such as Pixies, Pavement and Nirvana.

The performances also highlight Gano’s gift as a storyteller. Between songs, he stirs up the crowd and banters like a standup comedian. Their reaction to the murder ballad “Country Death Song” stands out, accepted not so much as a grisly true crime confessional (as the lyrics suggest) but as a spooky campfire story. It’s met with laughter.

Those who opt for a physical version of “Violent Femmes (Deluxe Edition)” will receive an accompanying book, which features a long essay by Rolling Stone writer David Fricke. It includes interviews with the band and a collection of early, joyful photos of the Femmes in action. The print materials help complete the reissue’s apt documentation of the album’s legacy.


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