• Title: Punk Survivors in the Mainstream: Violent Femmes: “Why Do Birds Sing?”
  • Author: Mark Jenkins
  • Publication: The Washington Post (p. C7)
  • Date: June 26, 1991

The punky skiffle music and Jonathan-Richman-in-heat lyrics of Violent Femmes’ 1983 debut album continue to define the band. After several attempts to broaden its sound, the Milwaukee trio returns to its original style on “Why Do Birds Sing?” (Slash/Reprise), an album whose spare, often acoustic sound is supplemented by outside musicians on only four of its 13 tracks. The result is the band’s least motley and labored album since its first. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s in a return form.

In fact, singer-songwriter-guitarist Gordon Gano may have had only one album in him. His bratty persona hasn’t left him anywhere to grow, and returning to his original theme, adolescent sexual frustration, nearly 10 years later is a very limiting option. Yet that’s what he’s done: The albums most striking song is the one-joke “Girl Trouble,” which has been in the band’s repertoire for years and features the sophisticated refrain, “I got girl trouble up the [expletive].” Other songs work similar turf: “Out the Window” jokes about teen suicide, and a salute to “American Music” is really an opportunity to recall that “nobody would go to the prom with me.”

The Femmes aren’t rock’s leading grossers by any means, but they remain a viable concert draw. (They headline the “HFStival” July 4 at Lake Fairfax Park.) With its emulation of their debut’s sound, “Why Do Birds Sing?” could even be their best-selling release in years. But it certainly doesn’t open a route out of Gano’s teen-resentment cul-de-sac.