Happy New Year (Add It Up Productions)
by Scott Deckman
The Violent Femmes, one of rock’s great bands, return with EP Happy New Year, their first collection of new songs since the very underappreciated Freak Magnet, which was released in 2000. The Femmes have always occupied a special place in the rock pantheon since shuffling off the Milwaukee streets in the early 1980s with their own brand of folk-punk.
Happy New Year sees a very jazzy-though-familiar Femmes, Gano’s so-bad-it’s-good voice serenading us with a singular worldview that has lost none of its enigmatic hue. The smartest kid in the room, Gano sings about heartache, longing, and, of course, angst, proving that teens aren’t the only ones who’re flummoxed and angry. And I don’t know if it’s the production or recording, but he’s never sounded better.
Less punky and rocking than some of their later work, Happy New Year harkens back to vintage acoustic Femmes. They bust out of the gate with near-titular opener “Happy New Year Next Year,” and it’s anything but happy, an up-tempo jaunt with plenty of horns and familiar guitar. “Love Love Love Love Love” revisits Gordon’s specialty, mainly, his perpetual longing for that amorous four-letter word amid questions and doubts. Bassist extraordinaire Brian Ritchie, who’s an Australia music biz figure these days (and good for him), handles duties like he always does, and this includes adding his unique backing vocals when called for. The Horns of Dilemma, in this case John Sparrow, Jeff Hamilton, and Blaise Garza, contribute to much of the racket here, playing instruments as diverse as a cajon, mandolin, and bass saxophone, as does new(er) percussionist Brian Viglione (what’s it about the Femmes and Italian drummers?).
“Good For Nothing” is a classic Femmes’ opaque character study, humorous and weary, and recalls the bridge in “Hey Nonny Nonny” from Why Do Birds Sing? (another underrated gem of a record, released in 1991). No, he’s not down for doing something positive in the community, or for anyone else, thank God. “Fast Horses,” meanwhile, is a melancholy ballad looking at life and its finality, stripped of judgement.
Does this collection break new ground? No, but it doesn’t have to. It’s solid enough to merit a few listens and hopefully foreshadows a full-length. To be honest, it’s great just to have the Violent Femmes making music again.