25 Years Ago: Violent Femmes Get Their Second Wind With ‘Why Do Birds Sing?’
The Violent Femmes' 1991 album, Why Do Birds Sing?, is the record that gave the band a new lease on life. After breaking up in 1987, the folk punk outfit reunited the following year and released 3, their 1989 full-length that returned to their early stripped-down sound.
Sure, they had enjoyed heavy rotation on college radio and become underground sensations, but 11 years since they formed and on their second label, things were probably starting to look a little do-or-die.
Like 3 before it, Birds is reminiscent of the younger Femmes. The opening track, “American Music,” is a mixture of ‘60s garage rock, first-generation rock ‘n’ roll, and the Femmes’ own slightly skewed worldview. The call-and-response hooks and anthemic drive helped make it a No. 2 single on the Modern Rock charts and one of their signature songs.
Thanks largely to that song, the Femmes found themselves commercially revitalized. But, as the rest of the record shows, the threesome were already artistically revived. While still retaining the edgy angst of halcyon days, the band somehow manage to present a somewhat warmer and fuzzier version of themselves. Even on “Look Like That,” where we hear a spurned suitor slowly fall to pieces with jealousy, the "all together now" quality of the vocal harmonies make the song feel like a campfire singalong.
The Femmes also pulled from eclectic source material:“Hey Nonny Nonny” is a musical adaptation of a 15th century poem and they turn Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me,” into an acoustic rocker. The naked emotional vulnerability of Boy George's lyrics suit Gordon Gano and his heart-on-sleeve approach perfectly.
Though the band’s acoustic approach dominates the album, some of the plugged-in moments amp up the urgency. But even then, it’s the savage irony of Gano’s lyrics that make the most impact.
The most unsettling song is the one that’s most difficult to shake. “More Money Tonight” digs into the fertile loam of teen-nerd anxiety that was the Femmes’ early trademark and adds rock star dreams gone band. “I always felt that I was different,” Gano croons softly at the start of the song. He then paints a picture of high school humiliation aft the harsh whack of the rhythm section kicks in. Suddenly, we hear from the protagonist years later after he’s become a bona fide rock star. Reveling in his revenge on everyone who made him feel small, he delivers the knockout tag line: “I’ll make more money tonight than you ever dreamed of.” You’d cheer if the overall vibe wasn’t so sinister and if that poor, bullied kid hadn’t turned out to be such a jerk. It’s a bravura turn worthy of Randy Newman and it isn’t even one of the album’s better known songs.
But what could be the most intriguing fact of all about Why Do Birds Sing? wasn’t widely known until just recently. Among the swirl of stories that arose about Prince after his death, Femmes drummer Victor DiLorenzo told the tale of His Purple Majesty offering the band a previously unreleased song they declined to use.
The song in question is called “Wonderful Ass” and the title offers a good clue to the lyrical content. Despite (or perhaps even because of) the fact that the Femmes already had a song on the album that repeatedly employed the phrase “up the ass” ("Girl Trouble"), the band apparently decided the Prince tune would be a bad look for them. After all, at this point, the band knew they were capable of writing hits.
And although the Violent Femmes never had one quite as big as “American Music,” the momentum of the song and the album that spawned it provided a springboard for the band to bona fide cult status.