I’ll always remember the first time I heard Violent Femmes because it was such a cool place to be, browsing through the bins at Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. This is back in the summer of 1983, just after the album had just been released, and my musical tastes at the time leaned more toward mainstream alternative and perhaps, once in a while, a dive into hard core punk, and here’s this weird music, folk and punk mixed, all acoustic including the bass, the drummer’s just got a snare and brushes, and this guy’s voice is a trip because he sounds like such a psycho and such a nice guy at the same time.
I shopped until Violent Femmes, the eponymous debut album from this Milwaukee trio, finished playing and the store clerk plopped another LP on the turntable behind the counter. You’ve probably figured out the rest, something about asking the clerk what the heck was that last album, and saying “Throw it on the pile.” I took it home and snuggled up with it for a long time. It became part of my college years.
Just a few years later I saw Violent Femmes live, at the Wolf Trap outside of DC. Get this: the opening acts were The Pogues and Mojo Nixon. Get this: this was one of the performances where Shane MacGowan got too drunk on stage and wandered off for a huge chunk of the show and then later got fired. (I’m now convinced this happened multiple times since I’ve heard the same account from different sources at completely different venues–even though I witnessed it here.) Anyway, the Violent Femmes were amazing, and for some reason I lost interest after that.
It’s not as if I stopped liking the Violent Femmes–especially that first album. I’d always get excited when “Blister in the Sun” or “Add It Up” came on the radio and I’d tell people around me to pipe down. “Country Death Song” still gives me the chills every time I listen–it’s just so messed up in its black little heart. But the Violent Femmes were wildly inconsistent at times, and you always hoped they would stop broadening their horizons and go back to that simple, pure stuff that lives at their core.
Then, in 1993 something happened. Drummer Victor DeLorenzo left Violent Femmes to go solo. I may have stopped caring about them at that moment. Victor wasn’t just a great drummer, he was an equal part of a magnificent and wildly original trio that, of course, included Brian Ritchie on that acoustic bass and Gordon Gano on guitar and, as always, nice guy/psycho vocals. That’s why Add It Up (1981-1993) seems tailor made for me–it was the Victor DeLorenzo years.
I never bought Add It Up when it came out in 1993, probably because I don’t usually buy compilations and greatest hits albums. But this Craft Recordings 2-LP reissue of this album is more than welcome in 2021, a reminder of a lively and vibrant musical life I had back in LA in the early ’80s. Released on the 40th anniversary of 1981, the year the Violent Femmes formed, this is your usual big hits, alternate takes, live tracks and rarities kind of album. That wild inconsistency I mentioned before becomes an asset when the track listing is so untethered in time. This isn’t chronological–this is based to emulate the wide swings of a pendulum.
Plus, Craft Recordings really puts out some quiet, quiet pressings. Violent Femmes always sounded lightweight and minimalist by design, and this pressing brings out the band’s smallness, their intimacy, in an effective way. By the time Ritchie and Gordon and Victor start going big and electric, the pressing expands with the band and sounds incredibly clean. This is music that brings smiles to my face, even during “Country Death Song,” and that’s saying something.