A band that has always been more of a popular influence than actually popular, the Meat Puppets rose from the early ‘80s desert southwest to churn out some inspired tumbleweed punk on classic albums like Up On the Sun. They had a flirtation with stardom in the mid-‘90s; a minor hit song and the distinction of having Nirvana cover them on their live acoustic album.
Fast-forward a few years and the story is much different, and darker. Only Curt Kirkwood remains from the original trio that included his brother (who has struggled with drug addiction) and Derrick Bostrom. The band’s home base is now Austin, Texas, and their new label is the imprint headed by mega platinum pop-rockers Hootie & the Blowfish, who were big Meat Puppets fans in college and presumably only too happy to help revitalize their old favorites.
The newly reconstituted band is now a quartet, with Austin musicians Kyle Ellison (guitar, vocals), Andrew Duplantis (bass, vocals) and Shandon Sahm (drums—and yes, he’s the son of famous Texas musician Doug Sahm) complementing Curt Kirkwood’s lead vocals and guitar. Despite the new blood and extra firepower, there are precious few fresh sparks of life here. It is as if the new kids are too conscious of the band’s history to push the sound envelope. One noteworthy exception is the loony rap-boogie tune, “Hercules”, which is absurd enough to be hysterical and groovy enough to qualify as a good Meat Puppets song.
Kirkwood has always had a tendency toward the oddball lyric, and he doesn’t disappoint on tunes like, “Batwing”, a song that might be about consumer culture, though even with a lyric sheet available I’m not sure what a “Blue-vine batwing cannibal” has to do with it. There’s also a song about a “Tarantula”, and the acerbic, “Armed and Stupid”.
For the most part, this is a mellow album as Meat Puppets records go, more Mirage than Monsters. Again, there is an exception—the Zappa-esque guitar freakout, “Take Off Your Clothes”. Of the softer tunes, “Endless Wave”, is the best of the bunch, and one of the best songs Kirkwood has come up with, period. An almost bouncy pop melody, the upbeat, sunny-side up delivery belies the lyric, which given his band and his brother’s history, could easily be interpreted as autobiographical: “Here’s the horns of my dilemma / What’s behind this siren’s song / Do I crawl to my own drummer / Or am I being dragged along?” The search for that answer, one could say, is the story of the Meat Puppets’ career so far.