Red Red Meat were one of the purest American bands, pushing boundaries of music to the breaking point and incorporating diverse styles to create their own unique vision of America.
Before the honed, ragged intimacy of Califone, Tim Rutili, Brian Deck, Ben Massarella, and Tim Hurley deconstructed American music down the marrow of its bones and kept slicing. Under the guise of Red Red Meat, what they found there was a joyful celebration of creativity in slipshod acoustic sounds that could be pieced together to create a new art. An art of new Americana music where traditions were simultaneously firmly adhered too in one track and then uncannily thrown out of a moving semi-truck on the next track. Deconstructionists of the finest nature, Red Red Meat, never left an idea unformed. The four men were all aware that the point of deconstruction is not in the elimination of the pieces, but rather in the process of reconstruction; a reconstruction that creates a new and viable art form.
But there's that word that we're all loathe to throw around when discussing pop music: art. Built on popular ideals, Red Red Meat's final album, There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight, is artistic enough to sate the needs of elite, and yet, the music is decidedly workmanlike in its ethos and sound. Not unlike the brilliant Jason Molina in all his many incarnations, Red Red Meat coalesced the structures and instrumentation of folk, blues, rock, and pop, and gave them a voice, a melody for the common listener. Their album title itself is a recognition of the overview that religion and the Christmas season hold over us. Both forces are ever-present, available for enjoyment by all, yet, often twisted or manipulated for selfish gain. And that self-serving attitude casts a pall over our days, but we have learned to celebrate in spite of it. Or at least, Red Red Meat learned to celebrate it.
And There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight is part celebration, part funeral dirge; a birthday party festival for a troupe of outsiders with nowhere else to turn. In it's delicate and more melodic moments, it is simplistic in its theme and form. "There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight" and "Second Hand Sea" sound optimistic, built around a framework of shaky acoustic guitars and burgeoning melodies. The fact that the title track hasn't somehow been assimilated in the canon of modern Christmas music is shocking. It may not compare with, say, John Fahey's Christmas covers, but its religious overtones and lilting violin lines beg for a snowstorm and wooden chair by the fire to fully appreciate it. Album opener and standout, "Sulfur", set the blueprint for Red Red Meat with all their elements firmly in place: faded vocals, slide acoustic guitar dipping in and out, ghostly organs recurring from nowhere, and crunching loud chorus of distorted guitars all massacring blues guitar licks. Minimalist drumming is a key crutch that Red Red Meat relied on, as well. There's not a hefty cymbal crash or a clicking metal hi-hat on much of the tracks, just the pound of wooden stick on stretched drumskin, creating a hollow sound the reverberates throughout the cavernous quality of the record.
Manger, found Rutili and crew diving deep into electronic add-ons, as well. Loops, pulses, vocal effects, and an array of pedals all simmer underneath tracks like "Bury Me", "Mecanix (From Cold Milk)", and "Paul Pachal". New influences are packed into Manger and they all culminate in the avant noise opus, "Just Like an Egg on Stilts". Much like the song's title suggests, it's a precarious experiment in all the mesh of styles that Red Red Meat dug deep into on the album. It would also prove to be the final track in the Red Red Meat catalog before the group disbanded to explore other musical pursuits. A fitting, extraordinary end to the band's catalog.
But there's new life and new blood in this, There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight's deluxe vinyl reissue. (A successful PledgeMusic campaign was funded to reissue the album on double-LP format.) The extras can't hold up next to the album, being as it is set and tracklisted in superb narrative fashion. But other cuts such as the foil to "There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight", "Welcome Christmastime", and "Snow Shoe Waltz" give a broader, clearer picture of the theme that Red Red Meat aimed for. Originally conceived as a Christmas record (thematically, not necessarily musically), that theme likely capsized under the weight of Red Red Meat's vast bag of ideas; ideas that seem, in retrospect, far too large to fit within the frame of one album, and far too cinematic to be understood and digested by listeners immersed in the terrible throes of mid-'90s alterna-rock. Red Red Meat, in addition to creating lasting art with their approach to music, created a blended genre of music that reverse classified what American music could be. It's an approach that Califone still pushes now (as recently as 2013 with their much overlooked release Stiches), but it's one that could only be created in its time and context. The circumstance may never be right for another band quite like Red Red Meat, but, now, not forever, There's a Star Above the Manger Tonight fills a void in our collective listening experience of American music.