Wednesday, August 18, 2010

August 18: Meat Puppets, "Plateau"

Artist: Meat Puppets
Song: "Plateau"
Album: Meat Puppets II
Year: 1984

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Though it becomes increasingly rare as the years go by, there are few things better in the world of music than when a record company achieves "label identification."  This occurs when a record label decides to only sign the finest bands of a certain style, and it gets to a point where one is able to buy anything from that label and be sure that even if they do not know the band, it will be a certain style and a certain quality of music.  Throughout much of the 1980's, it was SST Records that was seen as the "home" of West Coast hardcore music, and though it was this label that brought the world the likes of Black Flag, Minutemen, and Hüsker Dü among many others, there were also a number of bands on their roster that could not be defined as "hardcore."  Pulling influence from the hard rock sound as much as that of country and many other styles, few bands have endured or made as wide a range of music as one finds in the catalog of the trio known as Meat Puppets.  Though their first record is unquestionably a hardcore affair, it was their second record, 1984's aptly titled Meat Puppets II that showed the word the diverse sound the band could play, and many of their greatest musical achievements are found on this album.  It was largely due to the fact that the band was injecting other sounds into the hardcore style that set them aside from their peers, and it is also the reason that the album remains a true classic nearly thirty years later.  Having been covered by many other bands over the decades, few songs in the catalog of Meat Puppets are more stunning than their classic tune, "Plateau."

From the moment "Plateau" begins, it sounds like absolutely nothing that one could even remotely affiliate with the hardcore sound, and it is within this song that the wide range of influences of the band become the most obvious.  Quiet, mellow, and melodic are just a few terms that describe this song, and one would be hard pressed to make the case that such words can be applied to any band looking to keep their "hardcore cred," and the Meat Puppets manage to do just that.  "Plateau" has a very strong country tone to it, as both the guitar and overall mood of the song could have easily come from an established artist in that genre.  The way in which Curt and Cris Kirkwood blend their guitars together is nothing short of stunning, and it is also the complexity of the musical arrangement that further sets the band apart from the stereotypical hardcore sound.  The country overtones on "Plateau" are further complicated (in a good way) by the deep blues sound that comes through clearly, and the fact that the group is still able to retain a sense of the punk ethos within the song serves as a testament to their talents as musicians.  Adding in an almost jazz-like feel, drummer Derrick Bostrom gives the song another unique aspect, and it is impossible to find anything similar to his playing here on any other punk or hardcore recording.  The fact that these elements are so blatantly present, yet "Plateau" stands as iconic as it does within the hardcore genre is truly inexplicable, and this exemplifies the odd musical mastery that is the music of Meat Puppets.

The one consistent aspect of the music of Meat Puppets is the wonderfully distinctive voice of Curt Kirkwood, and both his tone and style are immediately recognizable.  It doesn't take a music fanatic to understand that Kirkwood's voice is far from the "standard" styles of singing, as his singing is in many ways impossible to describe.  On "Plateau," his entire range of singing styles are on display, and one can experience everything from his almost spoken style on the verses to the high-pitched performance found on the bridge and chorus.  It is within these latter moments that one can hear a clear influence on later artists like J. Mascis, Kurt Cobain, and many other singers of the "grunge" and hardcore styles.  The fact that so many performers cite both Meat Puppets and Kirkwood as an influence to this day further reinforces how unique a band they were, and it is also within the words of Kirkwood that the band turned themselves into legends.  While the song itself seems to be little more than a description of a barren wasteland (it was written on a trip into the desert), it is the wild images that Kirkwood creates that make "Plateau" such a mesmerizing song.  Singing phrases that are almost psychedelic such as, "...holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand...," the words may seem nonsensical, yet there is much wisdom hidden within.  Without question, one of the most unexpectedly stunning and thought provoking lines ever written is found within this song when Kirkwood sings, "...who needs action when you've got words..."  It is moments like these that cement the groups' place as music icons, and their words have been re-quoted countless times over the decades.

Though Meat Puppets remained what can be termed as "underground legends" for more than a decade, the group, as well as "Plateau" were thrust into the spotlight when both were featured on Nirvana's legendary Unplugged performance in 1993.  One of two Meat Puppets songs the band performed that night, both Kirkwood brothers joined Nirvana on stage, and after the songs were played, it was clear to all where Nirvana had taken much of their sound.  This fact was perhaps the final piece in solidifying just how important Meat Puppets were to the development of music, and the fact that it was due to their more melodic songs as opposed to their wild hardcore musings serves as a testament to the "true" roots of the "grunge" sound.  Perhaps due to the fact that they were surrounded by some of the greatest hardcore bands in history, Meat Puppets found a way to blend country and psychedelic rock into the hardcore sound, and there has simply never been another band that was able to achieve a similar sound.  Their entire second album stands as one of the greatest musical achievements in history, and Meat Puppets II is without question on "the list" of albums that everyone should experience firsthand.  The album showcases the band at the top of their musical game, and the Kirkwood brothers and Derrick Bostrom rarely sounded better than on that album.  Filled with a wide range of musical approaches, few songs in the Meat Puppets' catalog carry the same musical power as one finds in their 1984 classic, "Plateau."

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