Violent Femmes

Permanent Record: The Very Best Of Violent Femmes Comp

(Rhino; 2005)

By David M. Goldstein | 30 December 2007

“What you want out of a Violent Femmes compilation is simple; the first album in its entirety, and then a smattering of the ensuing disasters.

-Bill Wyman, “The Spin Alternative Record Guide” -1995

Ouch. The late rock scholar Bill Wyman doesn’t like the Violent Femmes. He spends most of the article from which the above quote is derived completely crapping on every one of their studio recordings other than their legendary debut. But he does make two valid points: (1) While their ensuing output was not nearly as awful as Mr. Wyman would have you believe, the Femmes never came close to topping their debut album; and (2) as a career retrospective, 1993’s Add It Up 1981-1993 was more than a little bit inadequate.

Billed as a hits compilation, but containing an inordinately large amount of crappy B-sides, alternate takes and inside jokes of no appeal to anyone outside of the die hard fanbase, Add It Up couldn’t even be bothered to present the classic Femmes cuts “Kiss Off” and “Add It Up” in their studio incarnations; opting for long-winded (if rocking) live versions tucked away at the end of the disc. Permanent Record attempts to rectify Add It Up’s shortcomings by featuring a wide balance of 17 songs from the Femmes’ two decade plus career. But it suffers from safe as milk song selection that robs the Femmes of their eccentricities and gives the album the feel of a contractual obligation. The listener gets five songs off the debut and a predictable run of lesser known singles, though the inclusion of “Color Me Once,” the Femmes’ contribution to The Crow soundtrack (also home to Trent Reznor’s Joy Division cover) and easily one of their finest 90’s tracks, is a pleasant bonus.

I already extolled the virtues of the Violent Femmes’ flawless first album in my CMG review of their overlooked Hallowed Ground LP, so I won’t do it here, except to say that a Femmes best-of compilation bereft of “Promise,” “To The Kill” and especially “Prove My Love” can’t help but seem incomplete. Although I’m guessing they didn’t realize it at the time, the Violent Femmes’ debut essentially relegated the band to a special kind of hell if only because it was completely impossible to follow up. How could Gordon Gano have known that the goofy five-note riff comprising “Blister In the Sun” would one day be the ultimate go-to melody for stadium organ players and crappy Jersey Shore cover bands nationwide? And no act to this date, “emo” or otherwise, has managed to write a four-minute song that so encapsulates teenage sexual angst as perfectly as “Add It Up” does.

So there’s really minimal excuse for not owning a copy of the first Femmes disc, but Permanent Record attempts to make the argument that the Violent Femmes still might have been a pretty good band even if they’d never inquired as to why they couldn’t get “just one fuck.” Subtitling this album The Very Best of the Violent Femmes is a bit of a red herring; the unmitigated fury otherwise known as Hallowed Ground’s “Never Tell” isn’t on here, nor is “Good Friend” from The Blind Leading the Naked or New Times’ deliriously finger snappin’ “Don’t Start Me On the Liquor.” The emphasis here is mostly on the singles, and I’d even argue that 1999’s acoustic live record Viva Wisconsin serves as a better career retrospective on account of its willingness to dig deeper into the Femmes’ sizable back catalogue.

But for the uninitiated, Permanent Record still makes a relatively convincing argument that the Femmes weren’t artistically spent after the release of their first album. The inclusion of 1991’s “American Music” makes sense as it’s easily their most recognizable song that’s not from their debut, and probably their catchiest track since. The three songs included from the Hallowed Ground album are all excellent, as is “I Held Her in My Arms” and their keyboard-heavy cover of Marc Bolan’s “Children of The Revolution;” two gems from 1986’s otherwise questionable The Blind Leading the Naked.

Unfortunately, the usually bright folks at Rhino felt the need to stack Permanent Record with at least one song from each of the Violent Femmes’ eight studio releases, resulting in the inclusion of unnecessary trifles like “Nightmares” (from 3, easily their weakest album), and “Freak Magnet,” while classics like “36-24-36” and “Out the Window” (both on Add It Up, natch) are left off. And at only 17 (mostly short) tracks, the whole affair is a bit starved for length. Would it have killed them to include all 29 seconds of “Old Mother Reagan”?

The Violent Femmes are a very good band whose career was unfortunately somewhat hamstrung by the long shadow of their first record. Permanent Record is no substitute for listening to the latter in full, but at the very least offers a slightly more focused career overview than Add It Up did. That said, I’d still highly recommend the 23-track Viva Wisconsin over either of the aforementioned compilations because in addition to uniformly fiery performances, the track listing takes more risks.* It takes a hell of a band to play as many college gigs as these guys do twenty-two years into their existence. Long live the Violent Femmes.

* I purposely have left out Debacle: The First Decade because it’s practically been out of print since the day it was released.