The Violent Femmes put out a new studio album in March, their first since 2000’s Freak Magnet. That’s been a massive gap for a band that previously averaged an album about once every three years. But bandmembers have come and gone, and the group took a break between 2009 and 2013. It’s great to have them back and all, and it's certainly nice to see some new material on the shelves (or, you know, available for download). But the question is, is anybody going to give a crap about a new Violent Femmes record in 2016, or do people just want to hear them play “Blister in the Sun” and then get off the stage?
We'll see, but the signs for the future are good. The Femmes have a loyal fan base, a group of devoted music lovers who have stuck with the Milwaukee acoustic punks through all of that turbulence and showed up en masse when it was all worked out. Here in Denver, the fans were singing every word to every song in huge numbers at Riot Fest 2014, and then again when the Femmes played alongside Barenaked Ladies at Red Rocks last year.
The proof, of course, is in the pudding, and while the new material takes few if any risks, We Can Do Anything is a genuinely exciting album. The sound is classic Femmes, thanks to the relatively consistent songwriting of Gordon Gano. The laid-back, folky, slightly jammy, slightly jazzy alt-rock sound is intact, and the melodies are suitably catchy.
“I don’t think about comparisons with this recording to other ones, and I haven’t listened to any of them side by side,” Gano, who is now based in Colorado, says. “I think it’s very much in the feeling of a lot of our early recordings, just based on my memory of them, and something as particular as the approach. Our basic approach is live recording in the studio, but we’re not purists about it. Some tracks are live and others might involve a little bit of something that might not have been recorded at that exact moment.”
That’s an approach that the band has employed since that self-titled debut back in 1983, an approach that remains 33 years later. It’s business as usual for the band, though Gano is delighted that the Femmes have added to their arsenal.
“It’s nice that we've put them out and people can hear these new songs now,” he says. “The fact that people can discover them at any time from now into the future feels good.”
The good vibes might be flowing, but in January of this year, drummer Brian Viglione, formerly of the Dresden Dolls, announced his resignation from the band after three years (Viglione had previously replaced original drummer Victor DeLorenzo). John Sparrow, who has been playing percussion with the Femmes for about a decade, simply moved sideways onto the drum stool, and on they went.
“He’s doing a great job,” Gano says of Sparrow. “I’m very happy with how it’s sounding and working. In some respects, it’s a little more like the initial sound of the band. Victor had a concept of a hybrid of rock and jazz, and playing a lot with brushes. That’s part of the original sound of the band, and I think that John Sparrow has a lot of deep background with jazz, even before rock and roll. He can draw a lot on that with his playing, and that’s been good to hear.”
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So as the band gets to Denver this weekend for the Project Pabst festival, the lineup will be solid. Gano admits that he knows next to nothing about the event, but says that his band will be playing a crowd-pleasing set.
“We’ll play a lot of the old songs, the songs that people have great love and passion for,” he says. “We now have three generations of people who are into our music. That’s an honor and a wonderful thing. So we’ll play a lot of the songs from our first album, also from the second, some here and there, and then some from the new album. We don’t ever use a set list, so there’ll be some variation. There are certain ones we always play, and others we change around depending on how we’re feeling and how it’s going.”
And after that? More touring. The Violent Femmes have a new album to promote for the first time in a decade and a half, and they’re not going to let it go unheard.
Violent Femmes play at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, on the Captain Pabst Stage at the Project Pabst Denver festival, on Larimer Street between 27th and 28th. Go to denver.projectpabst.com for more info.