Sunday, October 18, 2009

October 18: Meat Puppets, "Meat Puppets II"

Artist: Meat Puppets
Album: Meat Puppets II
Year: 1984
Label: SST

Acoustic guitars, country influences, and almost psychedelic lyrics are rarely associated with high energy, massively influential punk rock. Seeming to take everything that "wasn't" punk and making unquestionably punk music, Meat Puppets remain one of the most innovative and revered bands in music history. Occupying their own, extremely unique place in the punk explosion of the early 1980's, the band is responsible for some of the most classic songs of the punk genre, and along with label-mates like The Minutemen and Hüsker Dü, they completely re-wrote the books on "what" could be labeled as punk rock. While Meat Puppets never gained the notoriety (until later) like their peers, they were able to gain an extremely dedicated following due to their amazingly unique sound. Pulling influences from bands ranging from ZZ Top and Grateful Dead to The Stooges and The Clash, one of the key aspects that makes the music of Meat Puppets so fantastic is that their songs have more musical variety then nearly any of their contemporaries. While their self-titled debut album was a brilliant explosion of sonic mayhem, it is their second record, 1984's Meat Puppets II that shows the true genius behind the band, and the album stands today as one of the most pivotal and extraordinary albums ever recorded.

The sonic difference between Meat Puppets II and their debut record from two years earlier is so stark that the two albums almost sound like two completely different bands. The band seemed to have grown tired of the "standard" hardcore music style, and have done away with their wild, chaotic music and seemingly random, screaming, almost nonsensical vocals. On Meat Puppets II, the bands' high-octane, aggressive style is still extremely present, but the songs themselves are far more structured, and the band infuses a wide assortment of other styles into their hardcore style. With songs like the quick instrumental, "Magic Toy Missing," one can clearly hear a country influence and can also be seen as one of major influences on later bands like Ween. It is this combination of a country style into their music that largely birthed the term "cowpunk," and bands like Violent Femmes, Pavement, and Dinosaur Jr. owe quite a bit of their success to the pioneering efforts of Meat Puppets. Another band that was heavily influenced by Meat Puppets, and in turn gave them one of their most famous moments was of course, Nirvana. All three of the songs that the two bands played together on Nirvana's legendary EmpTV Unplugged performance can be found on Meat Puppets II, and there is little doubt that the originals are just as good as the later, more well known versions. The fact that the original versions of these songs, as well as every track on Meat Puppets II remain so amazing is a testament to the sensational musicianship of the trio.

While Meat Puppets have all of the angst and aggression of the greatest punk bands in history, it is their often stunning musicality that makes them legends. With truly awe-inspiring instrumentals like the iconic "Aurora Borealis" (which bears a striking resemblance to the main progression on Phish's "Fluffhead"which was written years later), when it comes to raw talent, few other bands at the time could even remotely compare to the extraordinary talent within Meat Puppets. The main force behind these superb songs is writer, lyricist, and guitarist Curt Kirkwood. With absolutely fantastic tone, whether he is playing meandering acoustic progressions or punishing power chords, there are few punk-based guitarists who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Kirkwood. The other Kirkwood brother, Cris, perfectly compliments the guitar work with his exceptional bass playing. Able to bring funk and groove as perfectly as power and force, Cris Krikwood's playing style has been copied by countless musicians since his time. Rounding out the band is drummer extraordinaire, Derrick Bostrom. Much like the Kirkwood brothers, Bostrom proves to be a master in any time signature or mood, and there are few drummers of his generation who have shown such diversity in playing. Together as a trio for more than fifteen years, this lineup of Meat Puppets stand as one of the greatest, and longest running bands in not only punk history, but the overall history of music as well.

Along with writing a majority of their songs and playing guitar, Curt Kirkwood also handles all of the lead vocals on Meat Puppets II. This is where the influence that the band had on Nirvana becomes abundantly clear. After listening to Kirkwood's vocals throughout Meat Puppets II, it is beyond obvious where Kurt Cobain got his vocal style. With an overwhelming amount of emotion coming through in his half-sung, half-screamed vocals, Kirkwood's vocals are rarely anything short of awe-inspiring. Again setting themselves far apart from what was traditionally thought to be "punk," both the way in which he sings, as well as the lyrical content, Meat Puppets were like no other band in history. It is on songs like "Oh, Me," where the psychedelic influence of bands like Funkadelic and Jimi Hendrix become clear, and the blissfully bending guitar work makes the song one of the greatest ever written. The fact that they even included instrumentals on their album, alongside heavy rockers like "Split Myself In Two" shows the diversity the band demanded both from themselves as well as their audience. This varied musical approach is what enabled them to have influence on everyone from Ween to Sublime to Nirvana, and remain one of the most highly respected bands in music history.

Incorporating elements of country and western music, as well as psychedelic sounds into a punk-based ethos created a sound like nothing else that had been heard before or after. The masterful, often stunning precision with which the band presents each song on Meat Puppets II is a testament to both their amazing musicianship, as well as their constant quest to create new and original musical textures and moods. With only three band members, Meat Puppets manage to create more powerful and amazing music than a majority of bands with more members. With the sensational rhythm section of Kirkwood and Bostrom, the latitude of styles that the band could attempt catapulted them far beyond the abilities of their contemporaries. Topped off by the unrivaled writing, singing, and guitar playing of Curt Kirkwood, Meat Puppets were by far one of the most talented and brilliant bands anywhere in the world in the early 1980's. Though they never achieved much commercial success until more than a decade later, the truth of the matter is, even the most famous bands in the world could not boast the amazing range and undeniable musical vision that Meat Puppets displayed throughout their entire career. Tossing all traditional ideas aside, the group re-wrote the books on a number of genres with their truly magnificent and largely unrivaled 1984 release, the unique and monumental, Meat Puppets II.

Standout tracks: "Plateau," "Aurora Borealis," and "Oh, Me."

No comments: