The Violent Femmes have been a band off and on since 1980—they’ve broken up so many times the actual band members couldn’t list them off the top of their heads—and in that time they’ve had their ups and downs. When they’re good they’re amazing; when they’re not good they’re very much not good.
Their tenth album, Hotel Last Resort, encapsulates that perfectly. When it’s good it evokes The Violent Femmes’ all-time classics. Unfortunately when it’s bad it evokes their worst.
Right off the bat the album puts its worst foot forward. The first track, “Another Chorus,” sounds like an impression of They Might Be Giants but without the charm. Its lyrics are from the perspective of a concertgoer who hates the song he’s listening to and it’s probably not the tone to lead with.
Two songs later is “I’m Nothin,'” which is either a biting satire of Gen X detachment or an example of it—it’s hard to tell. Either way it’s about 25 years late since in 2019 “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?/ A liberal fascist full of crap?/ I’m nothin,’ I’m nothin'” describes fewer and fewer people every day. It’s hard for something brand new to feel dated.
It does pick up, however, and when it does it picks way up. The title track, “Hotel Last Resort,” is a seamless merging of Dylan-esque surrealist lyricism, early ’60s British beat music and the band’s normal folk punk sound. There’s no reason the song should work from a purely objective standpoint but it’s easily the best on the album and arguably the best from the band in more than a decade.
Also on the positive side is “I’m Not Gonna Cry,” a cover of a song by Greek band Pyx Lax. That’s notable because the original song is in Greek; the translation for the album is by Violent Femmes’ primary songwriter, Gordon Gano. The adaptation also adds an Eastern-European-style twist that the original lacks but that suits the song immensely.
But nothing embodies the rollercoaster of quality better than the album’s final song and it’s second cover: A version of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” It begins poorly as a slow, warbling rendition of the song, but after the first verse suddenly shifts sounds almost entirely to become one of the better of the many, many versions over the years. Then, just as you’re starting to enjoy it, the song ends and the final two minutes of the album are a meandering collection of tunes, beats and solos that don’t seem to want to end.
In interviews about the album, bassist Brian Ritchie has said it’s intended to be listened to in its entirety. Experienced in that way, it’s like a movie in which the long, tedious stretches of exposition are interspersed with scenes so good that it gives you a positive memory of the film overall.
Fortunately it’s not a movie, and you don’t have to follow Ritchie’s recommendation. You can just listen to the good songs and spend the rest of the time with “Blister in the Sun.”
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.