Here’s what I asked myself after my initial trip through Rat Farm, the new album from the Meat Puppets: What would I think of this record if it hadn’t come from the same band that released Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun?
That’s the thing about reviewing the Puppets’ new work. Their Reagan-era masterpieces cast such a huge shadow that it’s hard to listen to new stuff without making comparisons. I don’t think it’s just me. Go look at published reviews of recent Puppets releases. You’ll see a lot of comments like, “Oh, it’s pretty good, but there’s nothing as amazing as ‘Plateau’ on here”.
That seemed unfair. So before diving into Rat Farm again, I tried to forget the band’s 1980s output and approach the record as if it were the debut of a new band, rather than the 14th release from a group of slacker-punk legends.
Did I succeed? Not entirely. I couldn’t help but notice, for instance, that there’s nothing as amazing as “Plateau” on here. I also realized that while it might not reach the transcendent heights of the Meat Puppets’ best work, Rat Farm is a great album in its own right, brimming with irresistible guitar hooks, offbeat melodies, and zoned-out vocals.
Musically, the album stitches together the loopy, psychedelic country-punk of the Puppets’ early days and the more polished, muscular alt-rock they put out in the post-Nevermind 1990s. As always, Curt Kirkwood proves himself to be a versatile and masterful guitarist. His guitar thunders and growls on songs like “One More Drop” and “Sweet”, but then he switches to a rustic acoustic sound on “Waiting”. His brother Cris Kirkwood, meanwhile, answers him step for step with his melodic and propulsive bass lines, while drummer Shandon Sahm gives the songs sonic force without overwhelming the Kirkwoods’ interplay.
Curt’s vocal style can be an acquired taste, but I love it. He has a relaxed, aging-stoner delivery, and his singing, punctuated by some off-kilter harmonies from Cris, gives these songs a dreamy feeling that would be missing otherwise.
What really lifts these songs over most of their type, though, is the Puppets’ genius with melody and song structure. You never know how a particular song will unfold on first listen. The title track opens with driving drums and heavy guitar chords straight out of the 1990s alternative playbook. But then a groove from somewhere between reggae and ska hijacks the song until the power chords can regain control for the anthemic chorus. It all works beautifully.
Another highlight is “Time and Money”, a midtempo rocker with a gorgeous piano riff in the middle. “Down” features one of Cris Kirkwood’s catchiest bass lines and a squealing guitar solo by Curt. In fact, just about every song on the album has some offbeat hook buried inside it, a hook you’ll find yourself humming for days.
Like any band that has been around for more than 30 years, the Meat Puppets have had their ups and downs. Rat Farm definitely belongs in the “up” column, and I hope fans give this smart, creative and catchy album its due.