Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut album, released in 1983, is one that has been played in Villain Towers as much as any other in the thousands of record in my ownership. I’ve written about it before, suggesting that it is almost the perfect album, containing not a single duff track across its ten cuts that take just over 36 minutes from start to end. It was a ground-breaking folk-punk record which married angst-ridden and miserable lyrics with infectiously enjoyable tunes.
The successive albums that followed never quite matched its brilliance although all of them had more than a handful of tracks I’ve never tired of – the only reason I haven’t ever turned my hand to an ICA is that it would be dominated by tracks from the debut, but I’m going to address that sometime reasonably soon.
For now, I want to offer up some some thoughts on the album Hotel Last Resort, released in 2019 and which I put on the list for Santa despite me not hearing or checking out any of its tracks beforehand, and if you’ll indulge me, there’s a bit of scene-setting required.
Hotel Last Resort is the band’s tenth album, only three of which have been released since 1995. Every album has featured Gordon Gano (guitars and lead vocals) and Brian Ritchie (bass and backing vocals); Victor DeLorenzo drummed on the five albums released between 1983 and 1991, while Guy Hoffman did the duties on the three recorded between 1994 and 2000. Gano and Ritchie had a huge falling out in 2007 when the former, who wrote all of the songs, decided to sell advertising rights to a hamburger chain for the use of the band’s best known song, Blister in the Sun. Ritchie accused the vegetarian Gano of a total sell-out of the band’s heritage on culinary, political, health, economic and environmental grounds and he filed a lawsuit seeking half ownership of Violent Femmes’ music and access to royalties. It was no surprise that the band broke-up shortly afterwards.
The reformation came in 2013 with DeLorenzo back on board, but only for a short period during which they appeared in the bill of a number of festivals in America. He was replaced by Brian Viglione, formerly of the Dresden Dolls, and this trio would continue to play live for the next three years before Viglione, through his Facebook page, announced he had quit, possibly from the tensions in the studio as work commenced and was completed on We Can Do Anything, the first new album in sixteen years.
The 2016 album received mixed reviews and I shied away from it. I hadn’t actually picked up that, with another new drummer in tow in the shape of John Sparrow, and a fourth member in saxophonist Blaise Garza, they had released another album in 2019 until I saw it mentioned in a year-end list ‘best of’ by one of the independent record shops I keep an eye on. That was enough to have it put on my Xmas wishlist……
The most surprising thing about Hotel Last Resort is that it sounds as if it could have been written and recorded at the same time as the debut album back in 1983. Gano’s voice is identical and the tunes he has composed aren’t a million miles away. Ritchie continues to make essential contributions on the bass and backing vocals and Sparrow sounds as if he has modelled his technique on that of DeLorenzo. I would normally be a bit pissed off if I picked up an album and found that a band hadn’t gone forward over a 36-year period, but the Violent Femmes never did make a facsimile of the debut, with moves into different sounding territories and genres on each release, and so I was happy enough with what I was hearing.
The latest album is an enjoyable listen. If the debut had scored 100 on an imaginary index, then HLR would come in somewhere in the region of 66-75.
It’s a record that has, at its heart, the signature folk-punk sound that so enthralled me in my early 20s, with lyrics that go beyond anst-ridden and incorporate the satirical and occasional self-deprecating stuff which populated the later albums. There’s also a bit of politics too, with sideway swipes at how America has changed so much for the worse over the years, highlighted in particular with a unique take on God Bless America, the patriotic tune composed by Irving Berlin in 1918 that really came to prominence in the late 1930s…..Gano and co. turn it into a funeral-paced dirge.
It’s not an album that will win them any new fans, but it is one that those of us who have been around the block a few times will take great pleasure. There’s a guest appearance on guitar from Tom Verlaine which adds a touch of class to the title track, which at more than 5 minutes long is about twice the length of most the other 12 songs, (only three tracks clock in beyond three minutes) .
Overall, I’m glad I checked into the Hotel Last Resort – if Trip Advisor had a section for music albums, this one would come recommended.