The Phoenix, Arizona trio made a career out of defying expectations. The two Kirkwood brothers, Curt (guitar/vocals) and Cris (bass/vocals), along with drummer Derrick Bostrom, made their debut with In a Car, a locally released 7-inch — five songs in five minutes — of shrieking thrash-punk and unrealized avant-guitar ambitions. The Puppets’ first album (a full-length disc that spins at 45 rpm) similarly mixes intriguing instrumental experimentation and a bit of restrained country into sloppy blurs of noisy punk.
Meat Puppets II marked the first of many shifts — into radical country-punk. The album offers a startlingly strong set of stylistic contrasts — loud and soft, fast and slow — all supporting moving, poetic lyrics. The songs are melodic and memorable; Curt’s high’n’lonesome singing is made even more effective by its uninhibited shoddiness. One of the best albums ever to blend Joe Strummer with Hank Williams, Meat Puppets II avoids cliches of any sort in its brilliant evocation of the wide open world of the Southwest. Make no mistake — this is not a hardcore album with some corny twang, it’s a fully realized work in a unique hybrid style.
Up on the Sun removes the Puppets further from punk, but doesn’t adequately replace the rock’n’roll energy. Curt’s growing mastery of delicate guitar weaves — an Arizona answer to Jerry Garcia, perhaps — provides the Puppets’ new focus; the hoedown coda of “Enchanted Pork Fist” owes as much to modern jazz as cowboy rock. The title track is a lovely, contemplative folk song with an airy vocal and a skipping guitar riff that repeats throughout. In a lighter moment, Curt and Cris whistle their way through “Maiden’s Milk”; waxing serious, “Creator” offers a poetic contemplation on god and nature.
The Puppets sound far more involved and enthused on the superior six-track Out My Way, again quite unlike anything in their prior repertoire. An utterly crazed raveup of “Good Golly Miss Molly” merely caps off a diverse collection of occasionally funky, occasionally psychedelic, occasionally countryfied rock tunes.
Mirage harks back to the sonic translucence of Up on the Sun, forcing Bostrom’s muscular drumming to find a way to maintain its reserve while kicking up a subtle storm. Curt’s intricate finger-picking and plectrum work leads the relaxed stroll on “Mirage,” “Leaves,” “Get on Down” and “I Am a Machine.” The bluegrass-styled “Confusion Fog” shows a different side of the Pups, as does the rocking “Liquefied,” an incongruous souvenir of the band’s early sound with acid-trip lyrics and distorted rhythm guitar. The only discordant ingredient on this technically accomplished record is Curt’s uncertain, often cringeably tuneless singing.
As legend has it, the genesis of Huevos began with a magazine interview in which Curt announced his adoration of ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons. Gibbons’ reply sent Kirkwood into a writing frenzy, and the album — which begins with the Top soundalike “Paradise” — was recorded in one marathon 72-hour stretch. The mildly commercialized sound (rhythm guitar, sweet melodies and a thick Les Paul tone) led hardline fans to call it a sellout, but that’s hardly the case. In this generally upbeat outing, the only discouraging words can be heard in “Dry Rain” and the self-deprecating “I Can’t Be Counted On.” Otherwise, Curt celebrates “Fruit,” “Sexy Music” and even “Bad Love.” Except for the out-there-with-the-cacti vocals, Huevos is quite fine.
Saving most of his liquid lead runs for showy instrumental passages, Curt again plays a lot of rhythm guitar on Monsters, a heavier, more tradition-minded rock album than usual. Beyond “Attacked by Monsters,” however, the colorless and repetitive songs aren’t very appealing, and the sound — which alternates between the band’s late-’80s clarity and a murky sonic swamp — doesn’t do much for them. (Ironically, the vocals here are fairly presentable.) Not among the Puppets’ best.
Their eccentricities notwithstanding, the Meat Puppets were arguably the most major-label-ready act on the SST roster when they signed to the London label. The generously endowed No Strings Attached recapitulates the Meat Puppets’ career to date with two dozen chronological selections, from the 1981 EP debut through Monsters.
Forbidden Places is an unfortunate big-league debut, a surprising misreading of the group’s strengths — the earthy introspection underscoring even their most twisted songwriting; their fluid power-trio drive — by producer Pete Anderson. Best known for the downhome cool of his work with Dwight Yoakam, Anderson focuses too much on the backporch promise of Curt’s acid-cowboy whine and sands down the band’s rowdy charm to an over-fine crust. There’s a heavy streak of trippy paranoia in Curt’s lyrics — like the attack of the “little red tongues” and “fat ripe rats” in “Open Wide” — but the guitar twang is too clean, the distortion too polite to suggest menace or fear.
Forbidden Places is actually a double bummer, a so-so record that arrived just as grunge-mania broke wide open. A new generation of ruffian bands, many of them raised on the Puppets’ SST classics, raced past them into the charts. Then, in late ’93, Kurt Cobain invited the Kirkwoods to join him on camera for three Puppets songs (all from the Pups’ second LP) performed during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged appearance. It was an impressive gesture of artistic respect and punk-rock fraternity which did wonders for the Meat Puppets’ mainstream profile. “Oh, Me,” “Plateau” and “Lake of Fire” became highlights of Nirvana’s resulting acoustic album, particularly “Lake of Fire,” which Cobain sings with a vivid, desperate ache in his voice that now sounds eerily prophetic.
Cobain also lent his name to Too High to Die, contributing a celebrity quote (“I owe so much to them”) stickered on the cover. More importantly, Too High to Die benefits from the surprisingly commercial touch of the Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary, who co-produced it. Without muting the prairie pothead quality of the band’s sound or Curt Kirkwood’s free-associative imagery, Leary and the Puppets establish a warm, cohesive feel even between strange bedfellows like “Never to Be Found” (tangled hyper-strum), “We Don’t Exist” (hooky speed pop) and “Severed Goddess Hand” (an almost R.E.M.-ish hymn, despite the weirdo title). “Backwater” actually became a hit, a post-modern take on ’70s Dixie rock (its coltish kick bears a disarming resemblance to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”) with a feisty guitar sound that belies the blood and ennui in the lyrics.
No Joke! is made of even darker stuff, a mixed litany of comic bad-trip metaphors and outright nihilism produced by Leary and the Puppets with grim potency. (In the case of “Head,” all it takes is piano, cello and tense electric jangle.) There’s a brutish, heavy metal quality to the guitar fuzz deployed on most of the songs: the gambit practically dares you to hang in there for the good hooks carried by the Kirkwoods’ distinctive vocal drone. That may have accounted for the record’s dim chart showing, and the Puppets’ return to cult status on their way to dissolution.
Today’s Sounds! is Bostrom performing covers of novelty songs (Archies, “Pac-Man Fever”) with Bruce Sandig on keyboards.
Supervised by Bostrom, the Rykodisc reissues (also compiled in the box set 8) add bonus tracks and live material. Rather than a full-on Puppets retrospective in concert, Live in Montana presents a near-bootleg glimpse of the band at low-key 1988 appearances in the state’s two college towns. A haphazard stomp through catalog selections and covers, it provides a glimpse of the sheets-in-the-wind recklessness of the original live lineup.
With Cris infamously going over the edge (but surviving) and Bostrom opting for retirement from incessant touring, Curt recruited bassist Andrew Duplantis (ex-Bob Mould/Son Volt), guitarist Kyle Ellison and drummer Shandon Sahm (both ex-Pariah) as the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra before resurrecting his old band name. The seven-track You Love Me maintains the direction of the former lineup. The self-production, nearly identical to Leary’s, partially buries the careening lead guitar fills, leaving the rhythm section as the base. Vocals on “Been Caught Itchin'” and “Monkey Dance” are reminiscent of early releases, while the latter borrows a rhythm figure from Nirvana’s “Stain.” The excellent ballad “Diaper” is otherwise unavailable.
As a band with just one original member (it doesn’t bode well that it took four people to approximate what was previously over-accomplished with three), Golden Lies had a lot to live up to. Two of the best tracks were already on You Love Me and the title track went missing (appearing instead on Snow). Monster had already demonstrated the danger of straying from country into plodding nü metal, yet “Pieces of Me” repeats the mistake. Mediocre rapping adds to the album’s woes on “Hercules,” “Lamp” and “Wipeout,” while “Batwing” is an idea for a song covered up with sound effects, a bad mix and the repeated lyrics “blue / vine / batwing / cannibal.” But there’s good stuff, too. Calliope-approximating guitars playfully give life to “Push the Button”; a gentle harmonizing chorus atop Stonesy riff-rock propels “Endless Wave”; and a classic Kirkwood solo in “Tarantula” follows typically psychedelic lyrics: “Radioactive bullfrogs in antique magnetic cream.” “Take Off Your Clothes” and “I Quit” also hint of the past, though the latter’s best elements are hidden in the mix.
Live documents this line-up at two New England shows from 2001 with just four of the 17 songs being previously released material. Classic Puppets compiles 24 album tracks and rarities by the original lineup, only seven of which also appear on No Strings Attached.
After leading the Eyes Adrift one-off with Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Sublime’s Bud Gaugh and its Volcano follow-up, Curt Kirkwood completed his first solo venture. Finally offering pure alt-country, Snow is a fine work, one on which each song could be a hit for any of several country stars. If Kirkwood is influenced by Gibbons in his band work, here he channels Leonard Cohen (“Box of Limes”) and the acoustic Neil Young (“Circles,” “Snow”) while remaining his own self. While producer Pete Anderson adds mandolin and steel guitar, Kirkwood’s multi-dubbed vocals provide smoothness not generally associated with the Puppets. Too smooth in places: all edges are removed from the indie-pop romance of “Beautiful Weapon,” though “Gold” is redeemed by an incongruous soaring solo. The nursery rhyme lyrics of “Light Bulb” top an attractively scattered arrangement with a surprising trumpet solo. “Movin’ On” is waltzing country boosted with several different types of guitar; piano and slide guitar accent “Golden Lies.”
Cris rejoined his brother after 12 years, a bullet wound and an incarceration. New drummer Ted Marcus rounds out the third Pups. With former eccentricities either not apparent or unexplored, Rise to Your Knees doesn’t sound exactly like either previous incarnation. Those expecting a return to form will find this one decidedly mellow. Details that are classic Puppets come measured, not with abandon (“On the Rise”). Rather than the stunned tripper in the desert, the lyrics are contemplative. A fun take on the hootenanny, “Radio Moth” has over-polished vocals. There’s a sense of waiting for things to take off: event the cowpunk is tempered (“Enemy Love Song”). Now located in Austin, the band can’t find its Texas boogie. Still, the album boasts three new classics: “New Leaf,” “Disappear” and “The Ship,” on which keyboards contrast a richly imaged acoustic strum.