Has there ever been a rocker more comically perpetually unsatisfied than Gordon Gano? Nearly 40 years have passed since the Violent Femmes debuted their freaky, silly hybrid of folk and rock, and these days they’ve settled comfortably into a style that’s a bit like Bob Dylan meets Monty Python (or sometimes S.J. Perelman). Frontman Gordon Gano still has a beautifully quivering bleat, and on Hotel Last Resort — the group’s 10th full-length and second since reuniting in 2013 — he flexes it hilariously on songs about how he hates choruses (“Another Chorus”), believes in nothing (a revamped version of the group’s New Times cut “I’m Nothing” from 1994), and lampoons the book of Genesis (“Adam Was a Man”).
Much of the music sounds like stripped-back demos for a Fifties rock band, full of in-on-the-joke rock & roll clichés like silly call-and-response backup vocals and Roy Orbison–style throbbing guitar riffs. And when they go off book, they still keep it fun; one song, the a cappella “Sleepin’ at the Meetin’,” sounds like a scatological outtake from The Music Man. Best of all they never linger too long on the jokes, keeping the songs mercifully short and enjoyable.
But just to keep listeners on their toes, it’s not all funny business. He’s also capable of aching sincerity, like his commentary on terrorism (“Paris Is Sleeping”), and too-close-for-comfort irony (a morbidly retuned album-ending rendition of “God Bless America,” which might well be a brilliant update of their 1986 song “Old Mother Reagan.”) They’re still fun and vital, and they still know how to make an exit.