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Violent Femmes: Add It Up (1981-1993). Craft Recordings LP Reissue

05-23-2021 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 115

Violent Femmes: Add It Up (1981-1993). Two 120 gram, black vinyl LPs: $29.99 MSRP. Also available as two 120 gram, blister-marbled red vinyl LPs: $32.99 MSRP. Available from Craft Recordings.

My first experience with the Violent Femmes came not too long after their eponymous debut album had been released in 1983. I'd just gone to work for a division of Eastman Kodak in the art department; our boss traveled frequently, and the nature of much of our work was entirely prospective and developmental in nature. Meaning that we generally didn't do much of anything at all, and when the boss was gone, we didn't do anything. One of the guys I worked with, Bob Budd (totally appropriate last name), was a complete doper, and a nearby restaurant had a lunch special where you could get a beer and a hot dog for $2. When the boss was traveling, a group of us would head over and have a couple of dogs and beers, and we'd invariably end up back at Bob Budd's apartment, where we'd spin records and smoke his ganja. Like clockwork, after reaching a certain stage of, uh, enlightenment, he'd pull out Violent Femmes and plop it on the turntable. Bob just gushed about Violent Femmes. "Blister In The Sun" had just begun to get airplay on local college and alternative radio in metro Atlanta, so I was definitely hip to it; the music was a little "out there" to say the least, but it fit right in with the typically eclectic sounds you heard on college radio back in the day. 

Violent Femmes were founded in 1981 by bassist Brian Ritchie and percussionist Victor DeLorenzo in their hometown of Milwaukee; they mostly busked on street corners in downtown Milwaukee evenings and weekends. At some point early on, Ritchie had asserted among some acquaintances that he was in a band; someone apparently took issue with it, and pressed him for the band's name. He randomly blurted out "Violent Femmes," and he and DeLorenzo later decided that they really liked the name and it stuck. Not long afterwards, vocalist and guitarist (soon to be principal songwriter) Gordon Gano joined them, and Violent Femmes became a real band. Their big break came that same year outside of Milwaukee's Oriental Theater, where Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders were playing later that evening. The Femmes were busking outside the theater, when they were spotted by Pretenders' guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who took a liking to them, and invited them backstage. After the opening act played, the Violent Femmes were allowed onstage to play several songs for the audience, who greeted the performance enthusiastically. The exposure allowed the Femmes to begin to get bookings at higher profile venues; New York Times music critic Robert Palmer praised one of their live shows, even going so far as to compare Gordon Gano to Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and Jonathan Richman. 

They were ultimately signed by legendary punk label Slash Records. Gordon Gano had written most of the material that appeared on Violent Femmes while he was still in high school; they had plenty of material heading into the studio, and the record was released in April, 1983. It took four years for the album to go Gold, but within eight years their debut had reached the Platinum sales level—which was a real testament to the band's popularity. As with most other bands of that era (or any era, for that matter) they endured the typical inter-group squabbling and record producer-imposed direction changes. The group lasted in its original incarnation into 1993, when founding member Victor DeLorenzo decided to call it quits. This Craft Recordings reissue of the compilation, Add It Up (1981-1993), celebrates the 40th anniversary of the band, and draws tracks from their first five studio albums. Along with rarities, demos, live tracks, voice-overs, and import tracks that were previously unavailable in the US in 1993.  

The music defies easy categorization, though it's most often referred to as "folk/punk," and even that's a pretty ill-fitting encapsulation. The album opens with an enthusiastic introduction to one of the band's live shows; the "f-bomb" gets dropped repeatedly by the emcee. That segues into a very entertaining "Waiting for The Bus," which was a demo created for the band's debut album, Violent Femmes. Studio versions from the first album of the classics "Blister In the Sun" and "Gone Daddy, Gone" follow, but the real highlight of Side One is "Gimme the Car," which was the B-side to a UK-only single—it's an absolute blast. 

Side Two presents three studio cuts from the Femmes sophomore effort, Hallowed Ground—considered by many critics to be their finest work—including the somewhat controversial "Country Death Song," "Black Girls," (got lots of airplay in the ATL!) and "Jesus Walking On Water." To say that these guys (maybe mostly Gordon Gano?) had an off-kilter sense of humor is a definite understatement. Another demo follows, "36-24-36," which was recorded as the title track of a movie that was never made. The closer, "I Held Her In My Arms," is an alternate take of the essential Femmes song that appears on their third studio release, the Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads) produced The Blind Leading the Naked.

Side Three continues with a couple of additional rarities from The Blind Leading the Naked period, "I Hate the TV" and "America Is," then adds the thirty second studio version of the protest song "Old Mother Reagan" from the same album. Next up is "Degradation," which is a brief radio spot for an upcoming band show at Milwaukee's Oriental Theater. It's followed by "Dance, Motherfucker, Dance," a really great tune that was recorded in Australia and was the B-side of an Australian-only single release. The energy the band displays here is literally off the hook, and it's the first track on the compilation to employ an extended lineup with the addition of a horn section. The side continues with "Lies," another rarity which is a mash-up of a live and studio track dating from around the period of their fifth studio album, Why Do Birds Sing?. The side closes with two studio tracks from the same album, "American Music" (which was the Femmes' last hit to feature the classic band lineup) and "Out The Window". 

Side Four consists of all live tracks, starting with what is probably the biggest point of contention with this compilation among fans: why were live versions of two of the band's biggest songs, "Kiss Off" and "Add It Up" (both from Violent Femmes) chosen instead of the studio tracks? This isn't a greatest hits collection, but quite a few complaints have been fired at it based on the song selection. The compilation concludes with "Vancouver," another rarity that includes a full horn section, and "Johnny," an intimate 1981 recording from the Beneath It All Cafe in Milwaukee. Which is the location that Brian Ritchie and Gordon Gano first met forty years ago, when Violent Femmes became a real band.

Craft Recordings Reissue LP

This compilation was originally released in 1993; the Craft Recordings reissue marks the first time the long out-of-print LP has been available since then. Multiple versions of the reissue package are being made available; my review copy arrived as the 2-LP, 120 gram standard weight black vinyl edition. The set is also being released in a strictly-limited-to-500-copies, blister-marbled, red colored vinyl edition, and indie record stores and outlets like Urban Outfitters will have special custom-colored vinyl variants available. The 2-LP set arrived with a deluxe gatefold, tip-on jacket, and the vinyl was pressed at Memphis Records Pressing. The lacquers for the LP set were cut by George Horn at Fantasy Studios.

My listening was done through my usual analog front end, which features a ProJect Classic turntable fitted with a Hana SL moving coil cartridge, with the signal fed into a Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ phono preamp that's powered by a Michael Yee linear power supply. For this LP, I used my PrimaLuna EVO 300 integrated tube amplifier powering the Zu Audio Omen loudspeakers. The LP surfaces were glossy, pristine, and almost completely noiseless (other than the "noise" provided by the Femmes!). Playback on my system was about as close to sheer perfection as one could rightly expect. 

This is not exactly a greatest hits package; as I noted above, it's a mixture of tracks from various origins. The studio tracks sound better here than they ever have. I was actually shocked by this; I didn't remember anything from Violent Femmes having this level of fidelity over at Bob Budd's pad, but in my defense—I was generally pretty substantially impaired during those listening sessions. Even the live tracks were shockingly well recorded. Of course, the sound quality of the "voice" tracks and demo tracks is quite variable; the second "voice" track, "Gordon's Message," is an actual recording taken from the recording studio's answering machine. Explaining why he was going to be late for the band's first recording session; he insists that his parents have "locked him inside the house," and he can't get to the studio.

If you're a die hard fan, this 2-LP set is a must have! Yes, there will be gripes about the song selection—which is quirky at best, and there are a few noteworthy omissions—but it's especially worth getting for the greatly improved sound quality over the original release. Even the casual fan will find much to enjoy here; Add It Up (1981-1993) comes very highly recommended!

All images provided by Chummy Press