Thursday, November 21, 2013
Simplicity in Meat Puppet-try
Welcome to the "Rat Farm." Eat. Drink. Lack all motivation. Be merry, greedy even.
The Arizona-bred godfather time ghost of both grunge and acid-rock has risen, and is touring the Western United States.
"Hallelujah, I'm rotten to the core, and I take what I want, then take a little more," sing the Meat Puppets now, back again with new songs and a four-piece format. The Meat Puppet nation continues to crawl as a cult following moves further toward critical mass with an international tour including the lead guitarist's son, Elmo Kirkwood, also on the axes to add a renewed youthful exuberance.
This is a family affair when the band plays on stage. With bassist, Cris Kirkwood, the only person on stage not named Kirkwood will be drummer Shandon Sahm.
New tracks such as "Gotta Leave Your Head Alone" and "Time and Money," include Elmo playing the chords, with his dad, guitarist and singer Curt Kirkwood, providing the arching riffs. These are the sort of tunes in need of theatrical space to be heard properly.
As in many of the supposedly simple tunes in which the guitar interplay becomes the main event, a sonic majesty gets created, and the original tracks are just a launching point.
Classic rock chord interplay also is key in "Again," with Kirkwood's riffs flying high. The new songs are catchy and anthemic. Each track follows a pattern where the songwriter is willing to meet the listener halfway, which is what made the band's biggest hit, "Backwater," a success.
Excellently paced, the staccato crossing of sonic swords leads to an eventual all-out jam by Kirkwood for one of the finest acid-folk-punk riff-outs ever put on a Meat Puppets recording. Such moments are short and sweet, yes, on the record, but a minute or more of that on the stage, and the world just might obey their call to party. On the record, sure enough, the listener may be wanting for more, but that's show business, folks.
"The records are just the calling cards," Kirkwood says during a telephone interview from his home in Austin, Texas, where on this day he remarks that it's raining like hell. "We have always had trouble capturing on the albums what we can do live."
He is low key, soft-spoken, sounding a little low-pressurized, sunlight deprived. He is in between shows, he says, trying to catch up on domestic matters that have "fallen behind." He says the band has just received a request to play at a protest of National Security Agency surveillance in Washington D.C., but it appears the tour schedule won't allow it. News that the late Kurt Cobain will be inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame is met with a kind of sad, awkward can't-really-go-there silence. Kirkwood says the Meat Puppets were also recently invited to play at the museum in Cleveland, but again, the heavy touring has made it impossible.
But if the band keeps spinning around the world with epic, inexhaustive tours and albums as insinuatingly engaging as "Rat Farm," eventual Hall-of-Fame-hood will no doubt be part of the icing on the psychedelic cake, especially when the band's obvious influence on and personal connection to Cobain and Nirvana are taken into consideration.
On the lyrical side, Kirkwood's core ethic of the elemental natural order of things remains. Topics range from animal greed to well-practiced artistic ambivalance. The effect is laid back, not in a rush, timeless. When it does head toward the outer limits with a jam, it stops suddenly, teasing the listener for more of that all out '81 Les Paul guitar, a reissue from the late 1950s model, purchased about three decades ago as a "slightly used" relic at Bizarre Guitar in Phoenix, around the time songs for the album, "Up on the Sun," were being written and recorded in 1985. The original model for the guitar would be, if the 54-year-old Kirkwood owned one, as old as he is.
On the "Rat Farm" track "Waiting," you run across the patented splooge of Kirkwood's love for the country music riff and the happy-go-lucky, nursery rhyme dreaminess of the lyrics and the Spanish, southwestern style on the strings.
One might wonder if the title track for the new record carries some social or political significance. It seems to be about gnawing, senseless greed. However, it's more down to earth than that.
"It's a song about my house," he says. "It's a mess. In this part of Texas, it's like a jungle, where there are a lot of rats and snakes. They like to get in my garage and chew on things."
The track "Time and Money," deals with not getting sucked into the business side of the music industry, "about what most stuff is all about, what's always been talked about, what the motivation for most people is."
The Meat Puppets began their long strange trip together in 1980, forming as a trio with drummer Derrick Bostrom, an intellectual, contrarian sort from Paradise Valley, who liked to stun teasing jocks at Chaparral High School with bits of Unitarian wisdom while quoting lyrics from prog-rock bands. The group began to get notice with the eccentric, spontaneous "Meat Puppets II," which is now considered an indie classic, and originally got a big boost when it received a rave from REM's guitarist, Peter Buck.
After a series of uneven recordings and many years of shows which often left listeners in a state of disorientation or frenzied adulation, the Puppets began to solidify as a unit with the release of "Scary Monsters" and "Huevos."
When Cobain invited the Kirkwoods to play on "MTV Unplugged in New York," the band became internationally appreciated. The release of "Too High to Die" finally captured the Puppets as an eclectic power trio capable of a nimble dexterity and ferocious teamwork; "Backwater" became a radio and MTV video hit.
But success in rock is a mixed blessing, especially for a group of boys who turned into men while touring and playing together for a decade-and-a-half. It's part of the pop process (enter, that classic part of the VH-1 show when the narrator says, "But then they turned to...."). By 1996 the band had splintered, with Curt keeping the Meat Puppets afloat, Bostrom suffering from tinnitus and trying to keep the band's name out there by maintaining the musical archives (one of the results of this effort is the crackling, spontaneous performance on the "Live in Montana" album) and becoming a sort of chief historian with a Meat Puppets web site, and brother Cris having all kinds of health concerns. It took nearly a decade for the Meat Puppets to get back on their musical feet.
When the Kirkwood brothers reconciled in 2006, they entered a new phase of creative output, bringing in drummer Sahm, recording three albums and touring heavily as a name brand act. Now, with "Rat Farm," they are garnering more critical acclaim.
The current tour has taken the band to Russia, Spain and England. While the faces in the crowds range at all ages, the opening acts are like high-tech grandchildren of the acid-rock scene. Kirkwood says he's amazed at "how together" the current new wave of musicians are "compared to the way we were at that age. There were no CDs when we started playing. We are always around kids who are half our age."
Although it's a mystery what kind of costume members of the Meat Puppets might be wearing on Halloween -- Kirkwood is wearing a dress on the band's most commercially successful album, after all -- in the kingdom of the "Too High to Die," it will be the inner Kirkwood speaking truth to power in the guise of the court jester.
Indeed, Kirkwood doesn't really see himself as much of a political animal, and is pretty humble and distrusting when it comes to the way his own mind works.
"I'm pretty respectful of other people's points of view," he says. "I'm not real respectful of my own point of view."