Before Nirvana, before Pavement, before even the legendary Dinosaur Jr. walked the earth, was Meat Puppets: the first band to ditch the hard-core boom of the early ‘80s and start writing songs that embraced the oddity and complexity of the worlds of folk and psychedelia.
Early records – such as ‘II’ and ‘Huevos’ – effectively mastered the sound of grunge more than half a decade before anyone even coined the term, pinning brooding yet glorious guitar riffs down under wailing, dissonant vocal harmonies from brothers Curt and Chris Kirkwood (even their names were grunge before the advent of grunge).
In their glory years from 1984’s ‘II’ to 1989’s ‘Monsters’, Meat Puppets produced a clutch of absolutely timeless songs, a few of which (‘Lake Of Fire’, ‘Plateau’, ‘Oh Me’) would later be brought into public consciousness when the band performed them with Nirvana for their MTV Unplugged show. Curt’s song-writing style tended towards ragged grandeur, taking the punk energy that birthed his band and grounding it with the earthiness of alt-country.
Now it’s 2019 and Meat Puppets’ (original line-up now intact with the addition of drummer Derrick Bostrom) have released ‘Dusty Notes’, an album with little ‘alt’ and even less ‘punk’ – it’s more a country album with the odd effected guitar lick. It is by no means a bad country album, but it is, by and large, an unremarkable one.
Where once Curt and Chris’ roughly hewn voices demanded attention, they are now smooth and unobtrusive, as if their edges have been sanded off. Their harmonies are overly close and overly safe, like a teetotaller speakeasy (quite literally on the plinkety-plonkety ‘Sea Of Heartbreak’), or onetime bounty hunter who’s sworn off his old existence to settle down. The impression of adventure remains, but there’s an absence of the danger that once marked them out.
Meat Puppets are by no means the first band to become gentler with age, but their appeal always relied on the central push and pull between beauty and ugliness to power their music. There’s only one moment of ugliness here: the lonely ‘Vampyr’s Winged Fantasy’ – a furious barrage of distortion that proves Meat Puppets didn’t have to grow old so gracefully.
There are still moments of beauty to be found though. ‘The Great Awakening’ is an excellent slab of heartland Americana, its loping guitar line borrowing that epic quality present in modern prog-country innovators like William Tyler and Nathan Bowles, while the sudden arrival of ‘On’ – with its sonorous harmonies and minor chords – sounds like the first patches of raincloud on a pleasant summer’s day.
The arrival of unexpected instruments (‘Unfrozen Memory’ with its harpsichord, the Mariachi horns of the title track) is perhaps the only thing truly ‘alternative’ about this record, but each time one appears it adds a welcome sense of goofy charm to the Meat Puppets in their modern incarnation.
‘Dusty Notes’ is an easy listen, but a Meat Puppets album shouldn’t be easy – it should be a hot mess. Somewhere along the way the Kirkwood brothers lost the ramshackle charm that made them everyone’s favourite musician’s favourite musician. These might be the same people who recorded ‘Huevos’ and ‘II’, but they aren’t the same band.
Words: Josh Gray
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