• Title: The Joys of Maladjustment
  • Author: John Pareles
  • Publication: The New York Times (p. Arts, 16)
  • Date: April 15, 1989

You wouldn’t want to be in a locked room with the characters in Gordon Gano’s songs for the Violent Femmes. Lonely, sick, sexually frustrated, vengeful, desperate, at times violently psychotic, they’re probably the most maladjusted bunch of misfits a rock song writer has ever dreamed up. To make them even more disturbing, Mr. Gano usually delivers their sentiments in the first person, with the whiny, nasal voice and contorted face of a nerd in torment. And every so often, between sociopathic tidings, he sings gospel songs.
The combination was somehow cheering to a full house Thursday at the Beacon Theater, where the Violent Femmes opened a two-night stand. An audience including a surprising percentage of teen-aged girls whooped and shrieked its approval throughout the set, often joining in on the older songs. At the same time, there was a continual flurry of conversation during the music, nearly drowning out some of the quieter passages. It was like a high school assembly.

The Violent Femmes touch on all sorts of old fashion, stripped-down styles–rockabilly, country blues, mountain ballads, surf rock–with a folksy undertone that comes from Victor DeLorenzo’s drumming with brushes. With Brian Ritchie on bass or guitar, the trio keeps the music loose and unpolished, with raucous guitar sounds and stray plunks; when Peter Balestri on baritone saxophone and Sigmund Snopek III on keyboard, flute or brasses joined in, they honked and blared. Like adding sepis tone to a photograph, the arrangements seem to backdate the songs, making them sound like long-lost traditional fare.

Mr. Gano’s snide fantasies are carefully realized, although heard in quantity they begin to seem jejeune. For their well-scrubbed audience, they apparently carry rock’s old rebellious, taboo-breaking kick, especially for listeners just discovering the literary possibilities of an unreliable narrator. And in individual Violent Femmes songs, behind the disturbed characters lies something more deeply disturbing–a sense that no one is far from the breaking point.