Is nothing sacred? Not in the realm of musical reunions, apparently. The demand from fans to draw their favorite ’90s bands out of their slumbering cocoons has lured just about every alternative-era act not named Hüsker Dü or The Smiths out of retirement in recent years. Everyone from Veruca Salt to Ween have seemingly made a play at recapturing their former glory. No word yet on a Zwan reunion, though.
To that end, it’s easy to look at the Violent Femmes as just one of many. But the revered Wisconsin folk punks have actually been at work on their reunion for some time. Gordon Gano and bassist Brian Ritchie have tabled the lawsuits and infighting that have plagued the band in recent years, and their performances (with Dresden Dolls’ Brian Viglione standing in for original drummer Victor DeLorenzo since 2013) haven’t shown any signs of wear and tear from internal strife. The older but no less fervent Femmes are actually pretty damn locked in, so the thought of them working on new material hardly feels like a reach. Add the release of last year’s Happy New Year EP to the mix, and a new full-length seems not only to be permissible, but warranted.
Sure enough, We Can Do Anything delivers on what fans might have seen coming all along. Alternative Nation’s latest Reunion Record case file finds the Femmes working within their well-established musical parameters. Pay no mind to the 16 years that have glacially drifted by since 2000’s Freak Magnet; there’s still an air of dairy-freshness to the band’s quirky, midwestern musical viewpoint. Gano’s lyrics, meanwhile, still walk a fine line between the fanciful and juvenile, the emotive and volatile. Idiosyncrasies and all, We Can Do Anything is unmistakably the work of the Violent Femmes. If nothing else, it proves the band hasn’t lost its feel.
But for all the good things that come with being a true-to-form Violent Femmes record, We Can Do Anything is also hindered by some of the band’s nagging flaws. Consistency has never been the Femmes’ strong suit. They ruled the ’80s underground on the strength of their iconic debut and 1986’s more fleshed out but almost as impressive The Blind Leading the Naked, but they floundered some through the ’90s. When they’re good, they’re often great, and when they’re not … well, they’re not. That more or less sums up the band’s comeback bid.
There are tunes that sound like the band at its best, namely those that reclaim its famously rustic pluck. Tracks like “Holy Ghost” and the innuendo-laden “Big Car”, with their brushstrokes and folk-as-punk acoustics, would have gelled seamlessly into the fabric of the band’s 1983 debut. Similarly, it’s hard to stave off thoughts of “American Music” when listening to the jaunty melody on “Foothills”. Gano also tugs gently at listeners’ heartstrings on “What You Really Mean”, the record’s purest stab at a love song. Still, there are hollower moments, such as the New Orleans-ish “Issues” or album closer “I’m Not Done”, an attempt at a dusty country shit-kicker. “I Could Be Anything”, a polka-drunk tale of dragons, kings, and other childlike ruminations, is amusing at best, but otherwise disposable.
Through turmoil and an extended layoff, the Femmes have navigated some significant obstacles on their way back up to the musical surface. That needs to be taken into consideration in assessing We Can Do Anything. The band’s ninth studio effort ebbs and flows, but in the end, it has enough going for it to merit its existence, which is more than a lot of bands can say about their second-stands.
Essential Tracks: “Holy Ghost”, “What You Really Mean”, and “Foothills”