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Meat Puppets are Grade A

Joey Kuhn | Thursday, October 29, 2009

When most people think of ‘80s music, the sound they usually conjure up is a kind of glossy, sexy, synth-laden pop somewhere between David Bowie and Duran Duran. Yet there were a lot of things happening in music during that decade besides electronic beats and crazy clothes. One of those things was the Meat Puppets.
The Meat Puppets are best known for their contribution to Nirvana’s final album, “MTV Unplugged in New York.” Kurt Cobain, the famously suicidal lead singer of Nirvana, became a fan of the Meat Puppets after he saw them open for a Black Flag concert. In late 1993, he invited two members of the Meat Puppets, brothers Cris and Curt Kirkwood, to join him on “MTV Unplugged.”
On the show, they played three of the Meat Puppets’ songs: “Plateau,” “Lake of Fire” and “Oh, Me.” These three songs were some of the strongest in the set, and “Lake of Fire” particularly became a staple of alternative rock radio thanks to a particularly haunting vocal performance by Cobain. Tragically, Cobain died only 138 days after the concert, but his death assured the high sales of Nirvana’s final recording and cemented a place in rock history for the Meat Puppets.
But the Meat Puppets do not deserve to be relegated to a minor footnote in the career of Nirvana. Even before Nirvana, the Meat Puppets had created a unique sound of their own, blending hardcore punk, country and psychedelic rock. Their eponymous first album, which was heavily punk-influenced, contained only the seeds of this sound. But by their second album, released in 1984, the band members “were so sick of the hardcore thing,” according to drummer Derrick Bostrom. “We were really into pissing off the crowd.”
“Meat Puppets II,” perhaps the quintessential Meat Puppets album, is much more experimental than their first. It pinpoints a delicate ratio of punk, country western and acid rock, so that somehow, all these elements manage to hang together in a sound that is weird yet appealing. Think the Pixies, Johnny Cash and Jerry Garcia in one band. All three of the songs performed on Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged” are from this album.
Not only is the music bizarrely enjoyable, but the surrealist lyrics also run the gamut from simply quirky (“Oh Mary Lou, won’t you tell me what to do / I got a dollar on the corner and a razor in my shoe”) to downright indecipherable (“It’s a poor living room / Just above the dock / Wish those wild hens there / Feathers drip from every corner”). Curt sings the words in a distinct, warbling voice not unlike that of a different Kurt.
“Up on the Sun,” the 1985 follow-up to “Meat Puppets II,” delves even further into the country western vein. Distancing themselves from punk, the band members mostly ditched the distortion in favor of twanging acoustic guitars and a rambling bass. As a result, this album has a much lighter feel than “Meat Puppets II,” though it still retains the surreal, acid-washed atmosphere. With about half of the songs being purely instrumental, the Meat Puppets here show a knack for creating lovely, intricate little acoustic webs.
With every album, the Meat Puppets continued to expand and evolve their sound. After their major exposure from “MTV Unplugged,” the Meat Puppets put out their best-selling record, “Too High to Die,” on which we finally do hear the influence of the eighties creeping in with a synthesizer and perfectly metronomic drumbeats. They also began to sound more like some of their Seattle grunge contemporaries such as Pearl Jam.
The Meat Puppets went through two breakups in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, but after each they revived themselves with a new lineup. The band is still active and consists of two of the three original members, Curt and Cris Kirkwood, plus Ted Marcus on the drums. They have released two albums with this new line-up, the latest being 2009’s “Sewn Together.”