Add it Up: Angst in the Music of Violent Femmes and Langhorne Slim

* The following was published back in the summer of 2008 for “Crawdaddy!”. I’d post a link to the original, but I can’t find one anymore. The piece involves comparing angst in the music of Violent Femmes and Langhorne Slim, someone the music world hasn’t heard much from in a while. In digging up this piece, I’m tempted to make some changes, as I don’t think everything in it is as true as it once thought it was. I’m not changing anything though, because I wrote what I did for a reason, and at one point in my life I meant it.*

I’m probably out of touch, but I don’t think music today has the same roots in angst that it did in the eighties and nineties, when I grew up. Teenagers will always be angst-ridden bastards, but I’m not sure if they will ever have access to the same full-blown expression of those edgy feelings that flooded the entire musical landscape in the hey day of Trapper Keepers and fears about Yellow 5. Or, maybe everybody believes this about the decade in which they grew up, and I am only defending the music that defined my youth and my generation. Maybe angst necessarily moves with the times. In the end, who’s to say that “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” ranked any lower on the angst-o-meter than Offspring’s “Self Esteem”? After all, angst is a slippery word. It is an unspecific feeling, or collection of feelings, that we generally use to describe any aspect of the torrid ups and downs experienced post-puberty: lust, depression, anger, and the residue of anguish that sweats through all these things.

All I know is that Violent Femmes are one of the angstiest (whatever this really means) bands I’ve ever heard. And, unlike some metal and hair bands, they didn’t rely on cheap methods of constructing this feeling, such as loud guitars and screeching. Angst coursed through the veins of their music. Brian Ritchie’s base, spasmodic but persistent, captures the adolescent paroxysms that come from pent up energy and frustration—a kid slamming buttons and jamming joysticks, desperately trying to reach the next level of Galaga. The band served as the soundtrack for a gaggle of frustrated teens that produced unfortunate casualties like vandalism, scabbed dicks, and maybe even a few slit wrists. They also produced a twisted Fuck-the-World sort of self-reliant joy, probably best experienced when tearing along towards nowhere in some beater wagon (or, second best, daddy’s convertible), flicking cigarettes out the window.

I tried, but I can’t think of a modern day equivalent to this band. This is an argument for another day, but I think a lot of modern rock music is either too dumb, or tries too hard to sound grown up and sensitive, to wrestle with angst in the same primal way Gordon Gano and Violent Femmes, along with some of their peers, did. One new artist, however, comes close.

Langhorne Slim, with his goofy hat and boyish charm, doesn’t share the latent menace that Violent Femmes showed in their first few albums. And although his music doesn’t fit our textbook definition of the word angst, it is so visceral and conflicted that it carries the aura of the word (which is all the word really describes anyway—some powerful aura of conflict). If angst can grow up and learn to live with itself, while still maintaining some of its integrity, then Langhorne gives this matured version a voice.

Like Violent Femmes, Langhorne Slim and his band The War Eagles make songs that rile emotions to a head. While Violent Femmes created a pressure cooker of adolescent anguish, using bent high notes describing sexual acts in their self-titled debut, Langhorne’s songs create a pressure cooker for love and all its swirling contradictions and yearnings. As a song title on his new album suggests, Langhorne writes songs about the “Tipping Point(s)” of relationships. His voice, passionate and ragged, roils along with the band’s up-tempo brand of folk that lets songs vibrate at this point of instability, like a wave permanently on the verge of breaking.

Angst, which is German for fear, works better to describe the sort of heavy anxieties about “hellfire and brimstone” that Gordon Gano channeled than it does to describe tensions involved in love. Angst is darker than love. And Langhorne’s charming love numbers admittedly seem tame compared to the harrowing struggles between heaven and hell that Gano expresses in Hallowed Ground, for which Gano apparently wrote most of the songs during study hall in high school. These struggles up the anti of an adolescent’s attempt to cope with lustful and destructive desires. They create tensions that are born out in Gano’s voice, which cracks between demonic and angelic in the same song.

Although Langhorne deals almost exclusively with love, he keeps this topic from becoming one-dimensional and lame by pouring so much into it. Watch him perform; not many musicians sweat on stage with as much conviction. Passion and pain drips from his voice, like Cat Stevens’s after some hormone injections. You can tell that love is Langhorne’s religion. And it’s not an easy faith for him to believe in. It doesn’t just lift him up or down. It makes him and it breaks him. He fights a war against it in almost every song. Love provides the only truth he can believe in, like he tells us in “Lord,” a heartbreaker with a melody that seems more determined by the feeling of the words in Langhorne’s mouth and gut than it does by any preconceived rhythm. Love also represents something he can never truly know, like he tells us in “Restless.” It sets him free; it shackles him in ways that he longs to break loose from. You get the feeling that the contradictions involved in this fight, which can be both timeless and trite, are what keep Langhorne going. He pushes through what has been sung and said before with the ignorance and recklessness of a teen, and in doing so he produces a gutsy brand of folk music. He doesn’t just sing about the highs the lows; he embraces them. He sucks up heartache like he sucks up a right hook to the gut. And somehow the pain feels good. He gets up, booze soaked and weary, brushes the dirt off his jeans, checks his bruises in the dash mirror and hits the road, knowing there is value in the loss and that he would do it all over again just for the rush.

All the freedom searching in both bands’ music makes for good road music. Both bands push you to want to break free from anything weighing you down and light out for the territory ahead. This urge also comes from the way the bands rely on relentless motion—folk music with some extra horsepower. It makes sense then that the bands’ drummers, the engines of their respective groups, share the same construction. Malachi DeLorenzo of the War Eagles is the son of the Violent Femmes’ Victor DeLorenzo, who left the band in the early nineties. Maybe this connection served as one of the main reasons that these two groups decided to tour together a few years ago.

The connections are more than musical. And I imagine that those teens that used to reach under their car seats and pull out sticky Violent Femmes tapes might now be thirty-somethings highlighting Langhorne Slim on sleek i-pods. Those that once fumed down the road after a breakup, wondering how they would ever get laid, are now those driving slightly over the speed limit, more heartbroken than angry, wondering if they will ever truly love. And also if they will ever get laid again.

By nature, bands make their most angst-filled music when younger. And although Violent Femmes became a more dynamic band in their later years, expanding their sound in more harmonious and humorous ways with albums like Why Do Birds Sing?, they also lost the anguished core of the sound that so precisely defined them. I wonder if Langhorne can continue to live in the genre of explosive love songs that he revels in. They have an intensity and edge to them that seem to depend on youthful exuberance. Like Gano, he might struggle to shed himself of the reputation he is building.

As a teen at heart, however, Langhorne probably doesn’t give a flying fuck about his reputation. Despite all his obvious passion and conflicts, he also has the throwback appeal of the sort of rock star who just doesn’t give a shit, who plays shows shirtless and grimy and just for the fun of it. And this is part of the reason why he is gathering such a devoted following. Ideally, this is how we want musicians to be: sexy but also raw, sensitive but also callous, torn but also carefree. In other words, fucking “angsty.” It’s a tough combination to get right, and an impossible one to maintain. But it will always be a powerful and likeable combination in music, angst’s most potent art form.

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