OK, let's get this out of the way: the Meat Puppets were on Nirvana's "MTV Unplugged." This probably is the most exposure they ever got, and it was on someone else's show. Most people -- if they've heard of the Meat Puppets -- know them for that reason.
But the reason they were there is because Kurt Cobain was a huge fan of their 1980s output on the SST label. There, the band explored weirdo folk, crooked country, and punk styles, building a sizable fan base -- Cobain included. Eventually, they had a radio hit with "Backwater," but after doing big stuff like touring with Stone Temple Pilots and such, things fizzled. Drugs, jail, gunplay -- all that nasty business -- took the place of the music, and it seemed the band was done.
Somehow, though, they made it through. The Kirkwood brothers still stand and have been making up for lost time like crazy, releasing an album every couple years since the middle of the past decade. The latest, "Rat Farm," isn't likely to win the group any new fans or anything, but it certainly deserves some new ears.
"Rat Farm" kicks off with the lopsided Bo Diddley beat of the title track, which eventually morphs into something resembling reggae. "If you see me, don't run away in shame / you will not enjoy tomorrow unless you feel the pain," Curt Kirkwood sings. Right up top, they're diving headfirst into the darkness without fear. Creepy stuff -- like controlling children with candy -- butts right up against groaner jokes like "I built the ocean / I make it wave." Right there in the first verse there's all kinds of things happening. Image after image comes pouring out of Kirkwood's mouth. "Hallelujah, I'm rotten to the core," goes the chorus. Indeed. It's a dirty job, but the Meat Puppets have to do it.
"One More Drop" starts with pingponging power chords and a watery lead line. The verses are catchier than the choruses, but the whole thing sounds pretty good. It's psychedelic, but not flying-into-outer-space psychedelic.
The third track, "Down," mixes live-sounding funk guitar with lyrics about a "waterfall of color"; it's got a slightly countryish bend to it, but a Brian May-esque solo tips the song sideways in just the right way, saving the song from just being a regular old catchy tune and goosing it.
"Leave Your Head Alone" gets weirder, with talk of astronauts and prehistoric radios; a faux-sitar guitar line leads into a circus-music chorus. The second verse uses the word "spider" about four or five times.
This is part of the fun of the Meat Puppets, though -- without their fever-dream imagery, their songs might seem more pedestrian. Mostly, the tunes are straight 4/4 ditties with simple chord progressions, and so their twisted-hippie words help push things into an area that is uniquely their own.
The rest of the album is chock-full of solid Meat Puppets material -- it recalls some of their prime SST work without sounding like they're trying to make that happen. There's the doomy sea shanty of "Again," the Grateful-Deadishness of "You Don't Know" and "Time and Money," and the syncopated octave jam of the closer "Sweet."
If you like the Meat Puppets, buy this.
The production might be lacking a bit of beefiness in the low end, and the vocals are mixed a bit loud and a bit too dry, but it's a small complaint. After all, we're lucky that these guys are still around -- they were just in Duluth on Sunday -- making their music, so let's not nitpick.
Turn this one up and be glad the band came back from the edge of oblivion and is making albums this solid in 2013.
Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c)2013 the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.)
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