by Chris Estey
I don’t usually write about albums here at the KEXP Blog (I’m mostly a book and DVD reviewer and live event reporter), but every now and then I’d like to give a plug and some background on a new album. These will be recent or upcoming releases from artists whose older work is already be played on the station, but their fresh stuff might get lost in the shuffle of legions of new sounds coming out all the time.
To somewhat contradict what I just wrote, Gordon Gano & The Ryans’ new CD Under The Sun (Yep Roc) is the first full-length of a new band. But it is twelve songs (out of well over twenty) that long-time Violent Femmes frontman Gano has been creating with a couple of brothers named Ryan (Brendan and Billy) once the three found themselves living in the same New York City neighborhood. Passing through a shared social scene, the three new pals would rave on about music from Jackie Mittoo, Leonard Cohen, Mose Allison, and Television — artists who cleverly enmesh spiritual innervations into progressive, rhythmically adept music.
That’s what Under The Sun, their debut on Yep Roc, sounds like: Songs about mystery and darkness, alienation and aging, sung through flicked guitar patterns, rumbling bass, and on the one drums. When I saw the Femmes cover the Louvin Brothers’ “This Christian Life” at a sold out show in the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle three years ago, Gano prefaced it by saying, “If you don’t like the message of this song, fuck off.” Most people probably took that as a twisted joke, but Gano has been mixing offense with upfront statements of faith since his original band followed up their billion-selling first album (self-titled, and from where Gnarls Barkley got “Gone Daddy Gone” to cover) with the doomy, prophecy-obsessed Hallowed Ground. His relationship with casual fans has been contentious ever since, but artists like Barkley and The Arcade Fire can hear the dark night of the soul gospel vibe Gordon’s Baptist minister dad baptized him with.
Hallowed Ground was my favorite Femmes album (featuring the origins of darker acoustic based No Depression rock in “Country Death Song” and “It’s Going To Rain”) in spite of the uncomfortable collaboration with Gano’s band-mates. The wonderfully talented Brian Ritchie and Victor DeLorenzo, the former who I interviewed for Three Imaginary Girls around the time of the Zoo performance, made it quite clear Gano doesn’t speak religiously or otherwise for either the bassist or drummer DeLorenzo. Under The Sun allows Gano to come back to his speculations on salvation and sin with no quarry from band-mates, and if it wasn’t so infectiously catchy its lyrics wouldn’t be so corruptively memorable all the way through.
This is the best Gano album since Hallowed Ground, and though it doesn’t quite have the busking fire that supposedly got the Femmes discovered by Chrissie Hynde on their hometown Milwaukee street corner back in the early 80s, there is sublime joy and confident swing in the playing. “Here As A Guest” is a quietly devastating song about spiritually-based anorexia, such as the kind anarchist Simone Weil had (starving herself to join most of the rest of the world at the time, leading to her death). It’s a total heartbreaker, but the music moves through you, not falls on top of you, such as the American Gothic vibe of Sixteen Horsepower’s.
The title track is absolutely devastating; though a personal lamentation on the death of potential in a failed relationship, its near psychotic rumination on unforgiveness is bone-chilling. And in terms of melody I haven’t been able to get it out of my head for weeks (I’m not kidding). It’s like the best Queen song played by a country band. For X-rated Bible stories, “Oholah and Oholibah” is a monstrous groove about the horrors of scripture — Gano’s dad would probably be the first to tell you that “the Word” isn’t exactly “family friendly” and the exact description of God treating back-sliders as betraying whores is like listening to a mad preacher trying to scare the hell right out of you. This is punk as fuck “praise music.”
Miced and engineered by Neko Case and New Pornographers’ Phil Palazzolo, Under The Sun features Gano playing guitar and violin, Brendan on keyboards and horns and accordian, Billy on guitar and backing vocals, drummer Frank Ferrer from Guns N’Roses and the Psychedelic Furs, and Lonnie Hillyer on bass (Bernie Worrell). If the content of the record seems troubling, bear in mind the best underground artists who have gotten much inspiration out of the underrated Violent Femmes while mobs of yobs cheer for “Blister In The Sun,” and realize that sometimes you have to risk offense.