We Can Do Anything (PIAS Recordings)
By Scott Deckman
Whatever Gordon Gano’s been doing to preserve that awful tenor of his should be patented, because, like on last year’s EP Happy New Year, he’s never sounded better. That idiosyncratic wail is as fresh as it was on the eponymous record of yore. It’s funny even critiquing a band like the Violent Femmes, it’s kinda like critiquing Orwell, Miró or Shakespeare: What can I say?
But critique I must. We Can Do Anything, the first Violent Femmes full-length since Freak Magnet 16 years ago (a more rocking Femmes and a personal favorite), harkens back to an acoustic, folky Femmes, and does so a little better than Happy New Year. They may say they can do anything, but here they really stick to the folk-punk they’re best known for, eschewing anything approaching standard guitar riffs or synthesizers. Since many, if not most, people out in Recordland (who aren’t ardent fans like me and you) only know them from the first one, you would think they might like what they hear. But it’s hard to reinvent the wheel twice, and do so with the angst of adolescence still fresh. Gano, however, has proven himself a writer for all seasons, you just have to give him a listen. Douchebags at the bar singing along to “Blister in the Sun” may not have the patience (or maybe they will and I’m selling them short?), but music aficionados with attention spans longer than it takes for their smartphone thumbprint locking device to kick in should give it multiple spins before giving up.
Whether you connect right away or at all, one thing’s apparent throughout: The Femmes sound like they’re having fun. This is an organic suite of songs, full of acoustic guitar, banjo, signature Brian Ritchie acoustic bass, jazzy brass from longtime collaborators Horns of Dilemma, and goodly percussion from new(ish) drummer Brian Viglione, who does his best Victor DeLorenzo impression.
While Gordon shares songwriting credit with several others, including Sam Hollander, Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin, and even sister Cynthia Gayneau (who penned “What You Really Mean”; Gayneau is the traditional spelling of the family name), many of the songs come from a cache of demos he’s had for 20-plus years.
Opener “Memory” sounds about as Femmes as can be, the acoustic chug-a-chug pushing confessional, embarrassing lyrics. Near-album namesake “I Could Be Anything” espouses the benefits of slaying dragons. The song is a goofy fairytale, rife with Ritchie’s unique, scary basso backing vocals. You can take those dragons as metaphor, but the band actually sounds like it wants us in a netherworld for 3:44. And why not? Modern life can be a downer (do they make an app for that yet?). At one point, Gano stifles a laugh during the polka-like tune. I don’t think Mötley Crüe or Nickelback could get away with it. In fact, what other well-known band could? That’s what makes them special: Gano’s unique songwriting along with the band’s diversity. They’ll seemingly play any instrument to get the right sound and feel.
“Holy Ghost” eschews the spiritual for human themes, apparently at a bar of the same name. It rocks about as hard as the acoustic version of the band can, while on “Foothills,” Gano can’t tell you why he’s in love. Though the masturbatory wordplay shows you that you can take the man out of adolescence but not the adolescence out of the man. There’s always been something dangerous about Gano, despite the liberal Christianity and tender dorkiness. That condensed rage always lurks.
“Traveling Solves Everything” when you have the money I guess, and this is a guy who likely does; and yes, his band’s been around. Watch out for the beachy guitar riff while Gordon makes a plan that walks. “Big Car” sounds like an outtake from the first record, a very lively one about a “teenage tart.” It may be the only time I can hear electric guitar on the record. Gano ends the tune with a joke(?) about his paramour’s body not being found. There’s that yin-yang thing again. Closer “I’m Not Done” portends of further music, with a “Country Death Song” riff.
Nothing on here slays, but it’s well-crafted music that you may very well like getting used to.