FLYING IS ALWAYS THE SAME Meat Puppets

On their new studio
album, the Pups finally sound like they’re having fun again.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

There was a time when I greeted new Meat Puppets releases
with the reverence others reserved for births and bat mitzvahs. In the 80s and
early 90s, I caught every regional Meat Puppets gig I could, and when the
release date of 1987’s Mirage happened to coincide with my birthday, I got so geeked I almost sent the band a
‘thank you’ note. Unlike the fans who bemoaned their leap from SST to major
label-dom (highlighted by 1994’s Too High
To Die
) and increased profile via Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged plug, I just kept waving my Meat Puppets pom-poms and
drooling over Curt’s Kirkwood’s
guitar chops. What inspired my Drink the Kool-Aid loyalty most, though, was the
band’s disregard for dogma of any stripe, manifest in a blend that welcomed
hard rock, punk, country, psychedelia, Crazy Horse, and even the punk rock
kryptonite —  i.e., The Grateful Dead.

 

But then came 1995’s made-for-bargain-bins No Joke!, followed like clockwork by
bassist Cris Kirkwood’s all-too-public meltdown: a massive drug habit, a
dead-by-overdose spouse, even a stint in jail. Drummer Derrick Bostrom quit the
band but for some archivist duties, taking with him the percussion chassis
around which the Kirkwoods hot rodded and thereby distinguished themselves from
their SST label-mates. Curt soldiered on, abandoning the Puppets’ long-time
home-base Phoenix for Austin, where he reformed the Meat Puppets – first known
as the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra — for 2000’s uninspiring Golden Lies, and was one-third of the
one-off Eyes Adrift with Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. Cris then emerged from
the wilderness and rejoined Curt in the studio for the first time in a dozen
years for 2007’s Rise to Your Knees,
but unfortunately that title wound up an unintentional metaphor for the
unsteady music. The record felt more like a sad parting shot than rebirth, and
it seemed the Meat Puppets were playing out the string, if that.

 

But now the Kirkwoods, with Ted Marcus again providing the
beats, emerge with the band’s 12th proper studio effort, Sewn Together (Megaforce), and suddenly
a bleak, musically pointless future doesn’t seem predestined at all. If there’s
metaphor in this title, it’s not about these 12 cuts being a patchy effort, but
rather a defiant declaration of survival that’s missing only the “back” in between
title words. Remarkably, the record telescopes the intervening years and
formidable crises into more of a radar-blip hiatus than near career-ender,
rekindling the band’s fire in songs that sound as bold and self-assured here as
they previously did tentative and still-born. Mostly, the Meat Puppets are
having fun again, and it sounds like it.

 

Of course, it lacks the out-of-nowhere surprise that
characterized Meat Puppets II and
overall genre-bending weirdness of Up
on the Sun
. With the exception of a couple teasing tracks, it recalls
mid-era Meat Puppets more than those earlier career high points, and the few
new wrinkles here don’t exactly rewrite the book. But even this level of
rejuvenation packs plenty of surprising punch. 
The band nails their familiar twisted templates: Twangy shuffles that
wander off into the desert like clueless/curious mushroom imbibers (“Sewn
Together,” “Sapphire”); Monsters-riffs
where the processed guitar lines recreate Shuttle lift-offs between sing-along
choruses (“Blanket of Weeds,” “Rotten Shame”); and eclectic, almost proggy
epics that probably pass for ballads in the Meat Puppets universe (“Clone”). “I’m
Not You,” with its distorted mandolin and cross-harmonies, and the
whistling-powered polka “The Monkey and the Snake,” approximate the watery
vignettes of Up On the Sun without quite arriving there — though
that doesn’t make them failures, either. Less fruitful is “Smoke,” where
ornate piano parts feel shoe-horned into the Kirkwoods’ off-kilter song
structures, and the didactic “S.K.A.,” which tilts too prog-rock until Curt
busts out the whooping axe for a monumental freak-out.

 

Still, the scorecard is overwhelmingly positive. The
imaginative guitar flights are intact, but it’s their absence that would have
qualified as a surprise. Instead, what’s most impressive are Curt’s vocals —
he was never going to be confused with Enrico Caruso, but here he sounds as if
he hasn’t aged since the late ‘80s. And while the peyote trip lyrics remain as
oblique as ever, an element of maturity has crept into the narratives that not
only doesn’t jar with these throwback songs, but reinvigorates them.

 

 As if acknowledging
the passing of time but defiantly standing up to it, on “Sapphire” Kirkwood sings, “Though a
feather or two has been plucked from your wings/Flying is always the same.” You
have the proof of it right here in every gloriously Kirkwoodian pop twist and
soaring solo.

 

[Photo Credit: J. Cultice]

 

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