When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Gnarls Barkley takes on Violent Femmes “Gone Daddy Gone.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
It’s rarely the case that a band’s name presages a band’s sound, of course, but the moniker “Violent Femmes” is an exception to the rule. In 1981, the year that bassist Brian Ritchie, drummer Victor DeLorenzo and vocalist/guitarist Gordon Gano formed the band, “femme” was Milwaukee slang for “wimp,” and while the use of that word is obviously satirical and self-deprecating, its alignment with “violent” makes perfect sense. On their self-titled debut, the band created (or, at the very least, enhanced) the jittery, irreverent sound that would later be formalized as “folk punk,” tapping into a teen angst that wasn’t going away despite the demise of the first wave of American punk rock. But, these three didn’t exactly look or sound like Ian MacKaye or Iggy Pop, either (hence the appropriateness of “femme”).
With “Blister In The Sun,” “Kiss Off” and “Gone Daddy Gone,” in particular, Violent Femmes became the unlikely poster boys of disenchantment, purging their young, sex-addled frustrations for an audience that would eventually become worldwide, though for a relatively short period of time. Despite its debut going platinum 10 years after its release, the band never again received that level of acclaim, an all-too-common phenomenon noted humorously in the trivia section of the band’s website: “The Femmes first album has sold millions of copies. Their newest album has sold hundreds of copies.” Regardless, to this day the band has a cult following that recalls that of Daniel Johnston’s or They Might Be Giants’, a throng of eccentric music fans who buy into the idea of the band as much as its music.
As far as I’m concerned, the word “eccentric” has somehow developed a negative connotation, which is unfortunate. I don’t have numbers on me, but I’d wager that most great art is made by those who are eccentric or, in modern terms, “different.” (If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that last one …). In its own way, Gnarls Barkley embodies eccentricity. Cee-Lo Green got his start in influential Southern rap group Goodie Mob before cultivating a hybrid jazz/neo-soul/funk sound that never resonated with listeners the way his more populist hip-hip work did. (He was dropped from Arista just two albums into his solo career.) Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse) was a trip-hop producer in Athens, Ga., who would remix local bands like Neutral Milk Hotel before his infamous mashup endeavor, The Grey Album, made him a near-overnight celebrity in the early aughts. And it goes without saying that their collaboration as Gnarls Barkley turned more than a few heads when it debuted in 2006, bridging soul, garage rock and ’60s pop in a collection called St. Elsewhere, which set digital download records all over the world. Between its wild miscellany of influences, multi-costumed stage shows and surprisingly reverent cover of Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone,” there are few modern artists on the popular stage who create with such odd and spectacular exuberance. A germane reminder that eccentricity is a good thing.