Reviews

The Meat Puppets

Spencer Tricker

Despite riding the tidal wave of grunge to a major deal in the early 1990s, the Meat Puppets have never conceded an inch to anyone else’s concept of alternative music.

The Meat Puppets

The Meat Puppets

City: Hoboken, NJ
Venue: Maxwell's
Date: 2008-12-11

Beginning with their earliest records on SST, the Kirkwood brothers have put together exactly the sort of indie rock career young music journalists like myself tend to salivate over -- and for a number of reasons. Despite riding the tidal wave of grunge to a major deal in the early 1990s, the Meat Puppets have never conceded an inch to anyone else’s concept of alternative music. Album after album they’ve subverted expectations, solidifying a reputation as a band that never swore allegiance to any particular trend or movement. Formed in January 1980, the Puppets also predate many of the most important influential bands of that decade: Dinosaur Jr., Slint, and Mudhoney -- all groups over whom a considerable amount of drool has been let fall. And let’s not forget, of course, their involvement with 1993’s fateful Nirvana Unplugged performance -- an event that now stands as one of the most iconic and moving spectacles to be caught on film over the last twenty years. The massive exposure caused by this latter collaboration must surely have introduced the band to a wider audience (throughout the ‘90s, for instance, younger Bowie audiences would marvel at the goblin king’s apparent “cover” of Nirvana’s “The Man Who Sold the World”), but nowadays it seems that most of the people going to Meat Puppets shows are longtime fans who grew up listening to them in the ‘80s. And, fittingly, it’s these fans that are most responsible for the band’s recent reformation. Tormented by tragic struggles with drug addiction through the years, the Puppets broke up twice before reuniting without original drummer Derrick Bostrom in 2006 (this time triggered by positive fan feedback over the Internet). This rejuvenated new line-up, which comprises both Kirkwoods plus New Yorker Ted Marcus on drums, took the stage at Maxwell’s to play an invigorated set of songs spanning most of their discography. For better or worse, I find it hard to portray guitarist/singer Curt Kirkwood as anything but the brooding and enigmatic epicenter of the group. He acts that way, for one thing. Extremely reticent around people he doesn’t know, he healthily maintains the kind of mystique that’s generally reserved for younger artists still in the midst of producing their best work. It’s hardly a surprise, then, to discover that he continues to play his music with a fierce intensity and concentration. There are perhaps more fitting comparisons, but I nonetheless contend that if Neil Young was a nimbler guitarist, reacted more wholeheartedly to his love of Devo in the ‘80s, and sang mostly in a grizzled monotone, he might just sound something like the Puppets’ masterful six-stringer. If Curt is the mysterious one, though, younger brother Cris more than manages to hold his own as the band’s formidable bass player and back-up vocalist. In more ways than one, his presence anchors the material. The bass guitar seems genuinely his ideal instrument and there is something effortless in his natural playing style. After the show I get the chance to ask him about a few things -- living in Phoenix, rehearsing in Austin, working briefly with Nirvana, and, most painfully, his lack of interest in professional basketball (the ‘05-‘06 Suns are a current fixation of mine). Interestingly, and belying his relative youth, Cris seems somehow older than his more dexterous sibling, exuding a generally bemused, almost wizardly, personality that I’d call charming if that didn’t seem a somewhat condescending remark. His responses tend to be measured, usually revealing precious little when it comes to my more journalistic queries. Nevertheless, watching this giant of ‘80s rock unwind is something of a revelation in itself. For, just as the casual cynicism of their name suggests, the Puppets are a band that, above all else, seems grounded. Along with an unforgettable turn at “Up on the Sun”, the show’s highlights include a note-perfect rendition of the Meat Puppets II instrumental “I’m a Mindless Idiot”. Later on in the night, I half-jokingly ask Cris whether or not the song’s title is a trap for unsuspecting hecklers. He smiles wryly and defers to his brother (who writes the bulk of the lyrics), but the more shadowy Kirkwood has characteristically wandered somewhere out of sight so I’m left to come up with a more interesting question. It’s probably for the best, as he -- likely as not -- wouldn’t have appreciated my attempt at humor, but I’ve really got nothing else and feel slightly embarrassed trying to return to the Nirvana subject, which has been, somehow, brushed aside. The band’s road manager, Dennis, says something about heading out. And so, minutes later as I’m making my own way home, trudging back to the PATH station through the driving, malicious Jersey rain, I feel as though I’m stuck, with just a couple of mental images and a tacky tour T-shirt, but no real angle. I ultimately decide, though, that there’s really no point in over-thinking these two fundamentally straightforward guys from Arizona who happened to reinvent rough-hewn, genre-bending guitar music. Besides, the rain is getting to be too much -- I’m soaked to the skin, and so I crawl into a cab not more than five blocks down the road. The cabbie grumbles something at the mention of “Brooklyn,” but soon enough we’re on our way. Back at the apartment, I look up the lyrics to “Up on the Sun”. They seem extremely meaningful to me at that moment: “Up on the sun where it never rains or snows / There’s an ocean with a wind that never blows / And if you see it closer then the finer points will show / Not too much more, too much more.”



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.