There’s always been a Christian thread running through country music, be it simple devotion and a belief in a better world awaiting us after death or, and much more interesting, a fire and brimstone approach with hell and damnation the destination point for sinners, drinkers and murderers, much of this fired up by memories of spittle flecked southern Baptist ministers. Few modern records have acknowledged this as brutally as The Violent Femmes did on their second album release, ‘Hallowed Ground’, described by the late music writer Robert Palmer as “a subterranean mother lode of apocalyptic religion, murder, and madness that has lurked just under the surface of hillbilly music and blues since the 19th century.”
The Violent Femmes (Gordon Gano on guitar and vocals, Brian Ritchie, double bass and backing vocals and Victor DeLorenzo on drums) were allegedly discovered busking by James Honeyman-Scott who invited them to play the support slot for The Pretenders that night in Milwaukee. They went on to score an unlikely hit with their debut album in 1983 which found Gano’s sneering adolescent lust and teenage angst backed by some forceful playing with the trio incorporating elements of folk, punk and country. ‘Hallowed Ground’, released in 1984, found the trio expanding their sound with a brace of extra musicians and vocalists along with a horn section (The Horns of Dilemma) which included avant- garde sax player John Zorn. Again, all the songs were written by Gano and here he brings to the foreground his background as the son of a Baptist preacher and, despite being a budding rock star, still a devout follower albeit somewhat confused especially when it comes to carnal matters.
The album opens with ‘Country Death Song’, one of the most startling murder/suicide songs you can expect to hear. A jaunty bass and drums skiffle beat belies the grim tale which unfolds as Gano describes a descent into a homicidal rage. When the deed is done the band erupt with a furious blast of noise, a cacophony from hell. It’s a hard song to follow and the rest of the album might pale in comparison but there’s lots more dread in store as the songs progress. The marimba fuelled ‘I Hear The Rain’ is a rushed and short vocal smorgasbord as if Gano is wrestling with a multitude of voices within his head while the dread mash up of Lou Reed and Television on ‘Never Tell’ rivals the opening song in its hellfire imagery with Gano screaming “I’ll stand right up in the heart of Hell/I never tell” as the band power throughout the song with some quite amazing bass lines and dramatic percussion.
There’s some slight relief on the upbeat gospel themed ‘Jesus Walking On the Water’ which cements the notion that the trio are just a blast to listen to but soon enough we are back on Gano’s personal Calvary as the title song weighs into view. ‘Hallowed Ground’ sounds as if it’s ripped from the Old Testament with Gano quoting from the book of Hosea as the song begins before the band launch into their version of the apocalypse. ‘Sweet Misery Blues’ is a slight return to the debut album as Gano comes across as a needy would be stalker and ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ returns to the gospel refrains of ‘Jesus Walking On The Water’ as the band give us their take on the legend of Noah and the flood.
When ‘Hallowed Ground’ was released it divided critics and fans although ultimately, most now consider it the best of their albums. There’s one issue we can’t duck which is the inclusion of ‘Black Girls’. The lyrics are decidedly non pc and, despite some searching, this reviewer can’t find any explanation from Gano. To be generous, one might assume that Gano was satirising the hypocrisy of southern white racists who secretly were fucking anyone they could lay their hands on, all the while professing their faith – as Gano sings on the song – “You know I love the Lord of hosts, The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. I was so pleased to learn that he’s inside me, In my time of trouble he will hide me”. However, the jury is still out on that. Aside from the problematic lyrics, the song is a tour de force with the band and horn section blazing away and sounding like Count Basie on acid.
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