Everyone reaches a point at which hearing the opening riff of “Blister In The Sun”—for maybe the hundredth time, maybe the thousandth—results in a spontaneously induced catatonic state, triggered by decades worth of overexposure. There’s nothing much to be done about it, really. As part of the soundtrack for a 1997 dark comedy starring John Cusack as a distraught hitman donning a black suit and skinny tie? Not bad. As part of a Wendy’s commercial for a fish sandwich? Bad. The latter resulted in a public rift in 2007 between frontman Gordon Gano and bassist Brian Ritchie, who was openly appalled at the licensing of the song to a fast-food conglomerate—atop his legal battle with Gano to give him proper songwriting credits (which was settled out of court in 2012).
All of this is to say that “Blister” shouldn’t define the Milwaukee-born trio, which despite its in-house battles keeps on reuniting. The Femmes’ first three full-length albums, beginning with the single-loaded self-titled landmark up to and through 1986’s The Blind Leading The Naked, remain excellent reference points for the infusion of folk punk and busking-infused alternative rock. Accentuated by Gano’s often straightforward snarling rhymes, the simplicity of those records lives in their twangy stripped-down instrumentation, which occasionally flirts even with incorporating a bizarro joyful drum-circle-like vibe.
The new We Can Do Anything—the Violent Femmes’ first full-length studio record of original material in 16 years—seems like it wants to capture, or reclaim, the character of those early albums. Or maybe just prove that it can try. Either way, considering that both founding members Gano and Ritchie, despite their battles, are still plugging along side-by-side, it seems perfectly conceivable that they might be able to. But though they take swipes at the days of yore with impressive opener “Memory”—which Gano claims is a demo deep cut from years ago—and “Holy Ghost,” with its charmingly vintage Femmes acoustic strut, the detours into overwrought balladry (“What You Really Mean”) and too-corny traveling-carnival music (“I Could Be Anything”) overshadow the glimmers of what made the band authentic and great.
At its most basic, We Can Do Anything would be better served as a solid EP worth of Femmes material (on Record Store Day last year, the band did release the four-song EP Happy New Year). Too often, solid tracks like “Foothills”—never mind its ridiculous and hilarious rhymes like “I’ll take lunch with my coworkers / But after work I just go berzerkers”—are lost among the album’s wackier, ambitious forays. Because the Violent Femmes have always been at their most efficient when they’ve worked with less.