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3. Violent Femmes, 3

While I’ll admit to loving that an album titled 3 landed in the third spot of the Top 90 chart, I swear that the tally wasn’t doctored to make that happen. Sure, I might find the temptation to finesse a ranking to accommodate such symmetry entirely irresistible at times, but accurate reporting prevailed in the matter of assembling this list. The scientific method employed in determining the Top 90 may have had some gaps in it, but I followed it assiduously. 3 is at #3 because #3 is where 3 belongs.

3 was the fourth album by Violent Femmes. The number in the title seemed to refer to the number of members of the band. More explicitly, it could be read as a direct refutation of the band’s previously album, the Jerry Harrison-produced The Blind Leading the Naked, which was widely considered an overstuffed mess by the Femmes’ fan base. 3 was a back to basics effort, emphasizing the sort of the sounds that emerged when the original trio played together, the sort of sounds that got them noticed in the first place when Chrissie Hynde discovered them busking on the Milwaukee streets and invited them to open for the Pretenders that evening. Maybe more pertinently, the band was striving to make a record that sounded like their seminal self-titled debut, an album so defining that every mild deviation was greeted with disappointment. After the Femmes stumbled with the moodiness of Hallowed Ground and the rambunctiousness of Naked, maybe the clearest way to reestablish themselves was to embrace their original spirit.

It may be a measure of how far Violent Femmes had slipped that the arrival of 3 was something of a surprise. There was a widespread impression among the radio station staff that Violent Femmes had broken up, speculation that largely seemed to be based on the lukewarm feelings toward the more recent records and the releases of various solo outings and side projects by the band members. There was no expectation of another Femmes album, and no one was especially clamoring for it, either. Most of the staff had happily resigned themselves to busting out “Blister in the Sun” or “Kiss Off” every once in a while (the line “Why can’t I get just one fuck?” meant that “Add It Up” was reserved for party mix tapes). There was no real need for something new.

But 3 was a surprise in more ways than one. Beyond its mere existence, the record was damn good. Opening with the marvelous lead single “Nightmares,” songwriter and lead singer Gordon Gano established that he was back to the lyrical preoccupations that made the band’s music the life raft of relatable angst for sullen teens everywhere. There’s a thin line between romantic longing and damaging obsession, and the most earnest expressions of existential pain lap over into unsettling emotion quicker than the average person can count to ten. Paring back the music brought all that subtext back to the surface, giving special prominence to the bracing expression of a hypersexual id in songs such as “Dating Days” and “Mother of a Girl.” The warped sense of bravado was nicely tempered by the painful fragility of “Nothing Worth Living For” and the goofy skewering of hypocrisy on “Lies.” And, as if to demonstrate that they weren’t solely relying on old tricks, there’s “Fool in the Full Moon,” which was, at least to that point, one of the sharpest, most pile-driving straight-ahead rock songs the band had recorded.

Being a fine collection of songs from one of the touchstone bands of college radio would have been enough to guarantee 3 a generous amount of airplay, but there was one other little detail that added uncommon enthusiasm around the radio station. I suspect most college radio kids have a mildly antagonistic relationship with the campus programming board, the group of students charged with bringing in comedians, hypnotists and other performers to campus. At a lot of schools, especially back then, there was a disconnect between the bands celebrated on the radio station and those brought in to play live shows on campus. At the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, for example, the campus radio station was a relatively prominent part of the community with a respectable listenership, and yet the campus programming board paid no mind to the music radiating out of the antenna one building over and had used their budgetary outlay for “major” concerts to bring in the likes of Paul Young and Quiet Riot in the mid-to-late-eighties. So when the rumor started spreading that Violent Femmes were coming to play a spring concert at Quandt Fieldhouse, those of us who spent our days playing records in the radio booth thought surely it was untrue.

Our cynicism was misguided. Violent Femmes did indeed come to our humble university that spring, playing a concert in the darkened gymnasium to a large group of beer-addled college kids and similarly woozy high schoolers. It was, if I recall correctly, the show that kicked off the tour to support 3 and their first live gig in a few years. And, being central Wisconsin in the spring, it took place on a day that was notable for a huge blizzard that dumped several inches of snow on the town. In fact, we spent most of the day anxiously wondering if the band was actually going to make it. Sure enough, they made it there in plenty of time. Through tactics that I no longer recall, I wound up in the gym during the sound check and even chatted with drummer Victor DeLorenzo for a bit. He even took me up on stage to see his tranceaphone, the metal washtub inverted atop a snare drum that he invented and contributed mightily to the Femmes’ signature sound. That night, he was proud to tell me, he was using the original one.

Our collective enthusiasm for the show led to a lot of spins for 3 at the radio station (the debut was sampled a lot, as well), both before and after the date in question. We also felt a certain sense of obligation. Another part of the college was finally staging a program that suited and reflected out sensibilities. Of course we needed to support it as vigorously as possible. Thankfully, there was no reluctance on our part. It was no burden to play a track from 3. If anything, many of us were glad to have an excuse to repeatedly revisit the album.

Previously
Introduction
90-21
20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
14. Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie
13. The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
12. The Godfathers, More Songs About Love & Hate
11. Guadalcanal Diary, Flip Flop
10. The Pogues, Peace and Love
9. The Weeds, Windchill
8. Hoodoo Gurus, Magnum Cum Louder
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mother’s Milk
6. The Replacements, Don’t Tell a Soul
5. XTC, Oranges & Lemons
4. Lou Reed, New York

6 thoughts on “College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 3

  1. I would hardly refer to Hallowed ground as a “stumble”..also i vomited profusely from a mixture of vodka and amphetamines after attending the La Crosse stop of this tour which also occurred during a rather serious blizzard

    1. I should have been more clear about this point in the piece, but I think Hallowed Ground is a terrific album. It was a stumble in terms of the broader reaction to it. That’s where the moodiness of the record cost them, by switching away from expectations more drastically than the college radio audience was ready for.

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