For nearly 20 years, Gordon Gano has been playing out his emotional and spiritual angst through the electrified alternafolk of the Violent Femmes, veering madly between Bob Dylan gravity and Jonathan Richman comedy, with shout-outs to everyone from Lou Reed to David Byrne to Fred Schneider. Gano's nasal Midwestern yelp and songwriting quirks have always been perfectly suited to the Femmes' personality du jour, whether it be sanctified electric-rock icon or austere acoustic vagabond troubadour.
Freak Magnet, the Femmes' first studio effort since 1995's import-only Rock!!!!, stands in stark contrast to last year's Viva Wisconsin, a live album documenting the band's recent home-state acoustic tour. The atmosphere on Freak Magnet is considerably more arranged, layered, and electric, perhaps a fitting reaction to the Femmes' typically stripped-down mode of operation. This is obviously the band's most straightforward release of the decade, as Gano and multi-instrumentalist Brian Ritchie explore a number of simple, guitar-sparked avenues, from the propulsive opener "Hollywood Is High" to the Stonesy chug-a-lug of the title track. Revisiting the angry thrash of the early years is the two-minute pounder "Mosh Pit" and the gospel killbilly two-step "Rejoice and Be Happy," but Freak Magnet's oddest moment is the Dadaist closer "A Story (Featuring Pierre Henry)," a weird narrative with atonal shards of audio collage that feels tacked on.
The Violent Femmes have never enjoyed broad commercial success, instead smartly capitalizing on their enduring, wide-ranging cult appeal. But Gano's managed to get the Femmes involved in a number of soundtrack projects during their frequent hibernations, providing authenticity to the recent spate of '80s-flavored films using period music ("Blister in the Sun" figured prominently in 1997's Grosse Pointe Blank), as well as hired gun pieces ("Color Me Once" for The Crow, a cover of the Stranglers' "No More Heroes" for Mystery Men, "I Can Change" for the South Park movie). Keeping the Violent Femmes in the public eye while staying just out of the limelight has worked amazingly well, so it's hard to argue Gano's strategy, especially in light of Freak Magnet's verve.