After the surprise success of their landmark debut, Violent Femmes could have just released another collection of teen-rage punk songs disguised as folk, and coasted into the modern rock spotlight alongside contemporaries like the Modern Lovers and Talking Heads. Instead they made Hallowed Ground, a hellfire-and-brimstone-beaten exorcism that both enraged and enthralled critics and fans alike. Like Roger Waters purging himself of the memories of his father's death through The Wall and The Final Cut, bandleader Gordon Gano uses the record to expel his love/hate relationship with religion, and the results are alternately breathtaking and terrifying. Contrary to initial public response, Hallowed Ground is not a parody. Gano, the son of a Baptist minister, may wear his faith like a badge of honor, but it's a badge, not a shield, and what keeps the songs so volatile is the fact that they're filtered through the eyes, ears, heart, and loins of a teenager. Like the first record, all of the songs on Hallowed Ground were written during Gano's high-school years -- he was barely in his twenties when it was released -- resulting in a perfect rendering of the sweetness and brutality of the postpubescent teen, especially on the album's centerpiece; a searing indictment of loyalties broken and the snitches that break them, "Never Tell" is the perfect balm for the bloody righteousness of youth, and when Gano screams, "I'll stand right up in the heart of Hell/I never tell," it's hard not to stand right beside him. Christian imagery aside, Hallowed Ground is not as polarizing as some make it out to be. The band explores gothic Appalachian folk and child murder on the banjo-fueled "Country Death Song," bawdy and bluesy Lou Reed-inflected infatuation on "Sweet Misery Blues," and nuclear holocaust on the brooding title track, leaving little doubt that this is the same band that penned underground classics like "Gone Daddy Gone" and "Add It Up." Even the decidedly politically uncorrect "Black Girls," with its free jazz mid-section that includes everything from jaw harp to the screaming alto sax of John Zorn and the Horns of Dilemma, is full of the same smirk and swagger that made "Blister in the Sun" the soundtrack to so many people's halcyon days. The Femmes are nothing if not true to themselves, and Hallowed Ground is a testament to their tenacity, courage, and sheer obliviousness to industry ogling. Each track is as naked as it is bursting with ideas, and as the landscape changes, the band changes with it, leaving the listener at a crossroads; with each incantation, growling invective, and honey-whispered promise, they're forced to either jump off the gospel train or ride it along with them into the mouth of Hell.
AllMusic Review by James Christopher Monger