Gordon Gano & The Ryans | Under the Sun (Yep Roc)

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gano-underthesun.jpgThat isn't to say that this is an all-time classic like Violent Femmes or Hallowed Ground: the peaks aren't nearly that high, but the complete lack of valleys is cause for celebration.

 

 

 

As the singer, guitarist, and chief songwriter behind the Violent Femmes, Gordon Gano has spent his career writing some of the greatest songs in the history of alternative rock. What he hasn't done, however, is do that with any sort of consistency. Even the Femmes two greatest, most unassailably "must own" albums, their self-titled debut and its follow-up Hallowed Ground, mixed a couple clunkers in with the classics, and that ratio had completely reversed by the band's nonessential mid-90s releases.

Given that, it's all the more exciting that not only is Under the Sun good, but that's it's consistently good, possibly the most listenable album front-to-back of Gano's 26-year recording career (with the full disclosure that there are still a couple items in the Gano canon I haven't yet heard—the Femmes' 2000 finale Freak Magnet and Gano's 2002 solo debut Hitting the Ground). That isn't to say that this is an all-time classic like Violent Femmes or Hallowed Ground: the peaks aren't nearly that high, but the complete lack of valleys is cause for celebration.

Teaming up with brothers Billy & Brendan Ryan (formerly of the Bogmen), Gano explores a range of musical styles far outside of the Femmes' typically stripped-down vein. "Man in the Sand" kicks things off with an up-tempo, Ramones-y punch, while the bass-driven near-funk of "Wave and Water" sounds like it could have been an outtake from The Blind Leading the Naked. There's plenty of energy to be found, from "Hired Gun" (a country-ish tune that moves at a pleasing, bouncy trot) to "Way That I Creep" (a giddy nonsense song in the tradition of "Surfin' Bird"). But there's a hint of somberness, too, from the ode to homesickness "Home" to "Here As a Guest," a song whose lyrics seem drenched in parent-inducted guilt. "Oholah Oholibah" even combines the two, mixing a downer of a Bible parable with a vaguely klezmer swing (think They Might Be Giants' "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)").

Throughout the album, the music is richly varied, but Gano and the Ryans handle all the stylistic shifts with equal skill. Gano keeps his voice mostly to its lower registers, but he still bears that unmistakable nasal tone that is his trademark. Though musically the album excels, the lyrics can occasionally get dopey, as driven home by the bonus track, an a capella reading of the words to the closing track "Judge to Widow" (a twin to the earlier "Wave and Water") that drives home just how silly some of those words are.  (Also, as a side note, some female listeners may not dig the lesson the devoutly Baptist Gano pulls from the story of Oholah and Oholibah: "All you women, look and see/ Heed the Book or bear the penalty/ What you do/ Is requited of you/ From your sister, look and learn/ If you burn for lust, for lust you'll burn/ Like Oholah/ And Oholibah." Then again, he also admits that "[Ezekiel] can speak much better than me," so maybe he's just trying to direct his female fans to their Bibles.)

Though not quite up there with his best, Under the Sun is a fantastic addition to Gano's lengthy discography, an endlessly listenable collection of songs in a wide variety of styles that's definitely worth seeking out for Femmes fans. A- | Jason Green

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