Thursday, August 26, 2010

Music Library: Meat Puppets: Under the Influence Of

(picture borrowed from Mike Watt's hootpage)

I started this post several weeks ago while vacationing in Panama City Beach, FL, which was surprisingly beautiful.  No angry blackened waterfowl to be seen there, although there were quite a few BP guys lurking about, waiting to take charge at the first sign of trouble.  But for me, spotty web connections and general focus on other things led to never getting past the first paragraph.

Then I moved halfway across the country and anyway, suffice it to say that it's been hard to get back into the habit of writing.

But the Meat Puppets cannot be denied forever.  They were one of the most creative bands of the punk era, with a sound built on Curt Kirkwood's amazingly fluid guitar work.  The man's influence are all over the map, from the Grateful Dead to Neil Young to Doc Watson to Television to the Byrds to ZZ Top to the Stooges to King Crimson.  To name a few.  Curt wasn't much a singer, but his sometimes tuneless voice provided a blueprint for any band that sounds bored by its own brilliance (like, say, Dinosaur Jr). By focusing on Curt, I don't mean to express a diminished enthusiasm for the creativity of the original Meat Pups rhythm section, which was Curt's brother Cris on bass and Derrick Bostrom on drums.  If Curt was fluid, those guys were the bedrock.

So the Meat Pups were together for many years, but they broke up in 1996 when Cris's drug addiction spiraled out of control.  Curt moved to Austin and put together another band, which he later renamed the Meat Puppets for legal reasons.  That band broke up in 2002 and Curt recorded a few one-off albums.  Cris finally got himself clean and rejoined Curt in 2006, and although Derrick Bostrom declined to rejoin the group, they called themselves the Meat Puppets, and they were.  This newest version of the Pups have put out a couple of albums, but I've ever picked them up.

Even though I haven't supported them the way I should, I saw the new Meat Pups play an hour-long afternoon show this past March during SXSW, which was an incredible, beautiful experience.  Five months later, I'm still speechless.  Doug Sahm's son Shandon is their drummer at the moment, and he has a certain lightness that sounds very much like Bostrom.

fIREHOSE has a song called "Under The Influence of Meat Puppets."  That's how I play my guitar, anyway.  Here's the long, strange trip of the original lineup.

Meat Puppets (1982).  Most bands, this would have been career suicide, right out of the gate.  According to Curt, the Pups dropped acid in the studio and it is fair to say that this album sounds like the work of talented people on acid.  Curt's moan is particularly inarticulate.  The guitarwork is clearly there, but rushed and lacking Curt's trademark precision.  The version I have is the reissue, which includes the 21-minute original release, plus their 1981 EP and 13 more cuts, which are mostly the band jamming on covers in the studio.  This doesn't sound like anything else in their catalogue, and qualifies as "for fans only," which may even be a stretch.

Meat Puppets II (1983).  And then this is a perfect album.  More than perfect.  iTunes will only allow you to rate your up to five stars, but this one deserves six.  Or ten.  The first song, "Split Myself In Two," is an echo-laden hardcore-ish retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story.  Because why not?  Things get significantly more psychedelic after this, but it's the desert-culture sort of psychedelia, full of countrified fast & clean guitar licks and head space that sounds like the sun going down over saguaro.  "Magic Toy Missing," for instance, is basically a laser-fast bluegrass jam with approximately a gazillion million notes in the 20-second lead overdub. "Lost" is the greatest country song never recorded by a country artist (The Minutemen had a lovely funky take on it, though), although its appealing loopiness probably has a lot to do with that.  "Plateau," one of the three songs from this album that Nirvana recorded in their acoustic MTV show, is a folk song that gets good and weird in the last 24 bars with a heavily echoed overdub.  "Aurora Borealis" is another instrumental, this one overwhelmingly trippy and yet spare, sorta the essential take on desert psychedelia.  More echoey head music in "We're Here," then more Zen country in "Climbing," then more goofy hardcore with "New Gods."  "Oh, Me" builds intensity without ever stepping up its laconic pace and then dissipates it almost casually at the end.  "Lake of Fire" is a barnburner quite unlike anything else out there.  "I'm A Mindless Idiot" is an instrumental built on a pleasing guitar lick, and "The Whistling Song" has some sharp lyrics about a metaphor that takes over the song, culminating in a chorus that substitutes truly inspired whistling for words.  The reissue I have tacks on a great nonalbum track, "Teenagers," which starts out with hardcore riffing that turns into a Grateful Dead-ish jam. There's a couple of more unreleased tracks, some alternate takes of the album tracks, and a decent cover of the Rolling Stones' "What To Do."

Up On The Sun (1985).  At this point, there was nothing punk left about the Meat Puppets except for their label and tour partners.  Oh, and their attitude, because here the Meat Pups released what was pretty much the greatest psych-rock album of all time, something that could have been the staple of any classic rock station if not for Curt's ugly-beautiful vocal delivery.  I mean, punk was primarily about freedom, right?  The Pups chose to make this amazing, beautiful, intricate, willfully obscure album, and they put it out on the American punk flagship label SST and played these gorgeous songs for a mid-80s punk audience that had tastes as rigid as - or more rigid than - Wynton Marsalis's on jazz.  So there's hardly any distortion on this album.  Curt leans on the echo and chorus and delay when he wants to get mindblowing.  I don't want to get too hyperbolic, but the title song is one of the greatest achievements of humanity in the rock music age.  The rest is sort of a distillation of the non-hardcore parts of Meat Pups II.  There's more Zen country songs, instrumentals, whistling, psychedelic nonsense, lightning-fast bluegrass meltdowns, and the whole is a bellyful of pure greatness.  The bonus tracks on the reissue are particularly nonessential, but I'm not going to argue with yet another version of "Up On The Sun" in any form.

688 Club, Atlanta, May 14, 1985. Here's a bootleg I've had for quite a few years.  I was talking smack about the mid-80s punk audiences before, but here they sound like they're in hog heaven listening to Pups tear it up on their own songs and smattering of classic rock and blues covers.

Out My Way (1986).  And then the Pups turned into Zed Zed Top.  Actually that didn't happen yet, but they gave audiences a taste on this EP with "She's Hot" and "Good Golly Miss Molly".  Also included was "Mountain Line," one of the cowpunkiest of cowpunk tunes.  The reissue includes a cover of George Jones's "Burn The Honky Tonk Down," and you have to love that.

Mirage (1987).  So the Pups took Curt's love of superclean and superfast repetition here and made what was partially a druggier 80s-style King Crimson album and partially a sorta cold lead-in to their bluesier next phase.  I'm not knocking it, but it's pretty fussy and that squelches the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feel that you get from the greatest Pups albums.

Huevos (1987). OK, here they turn into ZZ Top.  Heavy distortion, lots of blues, lots of riffage, and proof that the Pups could rock like hell when they wanted to.  Quite the aptly named album.

Monsters (1989).  Somewhere between the wild, fun aggression of Huevos and the fussy perfectionism of Mirage, Monsters has some great songs, but it sounds overplanned.  At least, it sounds overplanned for the Meat Pups, which isn't to say it sounds that planned.  Just less crazy than you'd expect for an album that opens with "Attacked By Monsters."

Forbidden Places (1991). This was their first major-label album, and it's actually pretty great, sort of the flip side of Monsters.  The Pups have settled into a sound that's half-Mirage, half-Huevos again, but here they sound vital as hell.

Too High To Die and Backwater (1994). I think this was their best-selling album, with a push from their popular single "Backwater" and their appearance with Nirvana on the acoustic album.  I sorta wish they'd gone out on this note, because Too High To Die is a pretty fun album, with elements from everywhere they'd gone beforehand and a new version of "Lake of Fire" at the end. The Backwater single has a few other tracks, most notably an acoustic version of "Up On The Sun."  After this was the pretty awful 1995 album No Joke. Then, as I wrote back in the beginning of this post, break-ups, faked-up versions of the band, and now the Kirkwood brothers back together again.  Listening to these albums made me want to hear the newer material, just to see how it shapes up.


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