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Meat Puppets

+ {Eyes Adrift} + {Volcano} + {Curt Kirkwood}

For the whole of the 80s, the ambling cow-punk sound of the MEAT PUPPETS went awol outside hardcore followers of the S.S.T. imprint; although label-mates BLACK FLAG, HUSKER DU and The MINUTEMEN were reaping some rewards. But when a certain Kurt Cobain endorsed the whacked out desert-rawk interlopers for an MTV “Unplugged” set in 1993, things looked sunny side up for a while – then the drugs set in – then the inevitable parting of the waves between the close-knit Kirkwood brothers.
Formed 1980 in Phoenix, Arizona, by the said siblings Curt (vocals/guitar) and Cris (bass), plus drummer Derrick Bostrom (ex-Atomic Bomb Club), the trio relocated to the nearby suburb of Tempe, where they bought two houses (one with a barn), enabling them to rehearse their unique brand of innovative post-punk, country psychedelics. Impressed by the hardcore energy of the band from listening to their self-financed `In A Car’ EP release, Joe Carducci roped them into signing for the enterprising S.S.T. stable of punk-orientated combos.
The trio’s first recording for the company, the mini-set MEAT PUPPETS (1982) (*6}, was a demanding blast of howling noise and twisted country that barely hinted at the compelling sound they’d create shortly afterwards. Fiery, ferocious and full on the throttle, group compositions such as `Love Offering’, `Saturday Morning’ and `Blue-Green God’, were interesting, but not as interesting as the underdeveloped, mealy-mouthed metal covers of bluegrass cuts, `Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds’ (Bob Nolan) and `Walking Boss’ (DOC WATSON); if there was further proof needed, the belatedly-released CD experimented with FRED NEIL’s `Everybody’s Talkin’’, IGGY & THE STOOGES’ `I Got A Right’, NEIL YOUNG’s `I Am A Child’ and GRATEFUL DEAD’s `Franklin’s Tower’.
MEAT PUPPETS II (1984) {*9} was a different kettle of fish, Curt’s strangled larynx giving way for a desert drawl that befitted his horizontal hybrids of stoned soundscapes. Choice cuts were undoubtedly the languid `Plateau’, `Lake Of Fire’ and `Oh, Me’, a triumvirate that was to whet the appetite of NIRVANA and their aforementioned “MTV Unplugged” collaboration stint. A myriad of mystical GRATEFUL DEAD-like psychedelia that short-fused hardcore punk and the country-boy slur of Curt, the record was the blueprint for most of their subsequent output.
UP ON THE SUN (1985) {*9} was slightly more streamlined and saw the band garner snowballing critical acclaim. Down on the farm, the dreamy cow-punk of the opening title track served up closet country for hairy hippies not too perturbed by the fiery beats of punk rock. Every song on the set seemed to sway with a 60s breeze; `Away’, `Maiden’s Milk’, `Animal Kingdom’, `Swimming Ground’ and `Hot Pink’, all joyous and toyingly trippy – and that was just side one; `Buckethead’, `Seal Whales’, `Creator’ and `Two Rivers’ demonstrated the trio had marked their territory in the sand.
A stop-gap mini-album to fill-in time while Curt nursed a broken finger, the 6-track OUT MY WAY (1986) {*6} careered to a traditional beat, and one could almost forgive them for extending their covers CV by way of LITTLE RICHARD’s `Good Golly Miss Molly’; other recitals around the era were `What To Do’ (The ROLLING STONES), `Burn The Honky Tonk Down’ (Wayne Kemp), `I Just Want To Make Love To You’ (WILLIE DIXON) and `Rubberneckin’’ (ELVIS).
Curt’s songs (a few with Cris) were beginning to shape the band for the band’s next set, MIRAGE (1987) {*7}, a record fully broadening their desert-rock vision. Showcasing a collection of weather-beaten, funky country classics, tracks like `Beauty’, `Leaves’, `Get On Down’ and `Confusion Fog’ rank among MEAT PUPPETS’ college faves.
Yet the record failed to sell and the band returned to a rawer, ZZ TOP-influenced sound on HUEVOS (1987) {*7}. The Kirkwood brothers were again in unison on their dusty bowl replications of the boogie; `Paradise’, `Look At The Rain’, `Automatic Mojo’ and `Bad Love’, a mountainside away from their sunburnt eccentricities of a few years back. Still, no one was complaining but their bank manager; and one could find solace in the pounding `Sexy Music’. This album, together with the more mainstream MONSTERS (1989) {*6} – their final outing for S.S.T. – saw Curt and Co crunch and claw their way through MEAT PUPPETS mirth and metal: `Attacked By Monsters’, `Meltdown’ and `Flight Of The Fire Weasel’.
The trio’s major label debut for London Records, the Pete Anderson-produced FORBIDDEN PLACES (1991) {*7}, was just as razor-sharp and raucous as previous sets, although it lacked the high-noon intensity of their earlier work. Judging by the collegiate response to such elevated titles as `Sam’, `Nail This Day’ and the quieter `That’s How It Goes’ and `Whirlpool’, the technical ability of the ‘Puppets was never in question; the bluegrass-thrash of `Six Gallon Pie’ showed leader Curt’s finger work to the max.
After that step-up from the ill-fated Mr. Cobain (and Co.), BUTTHOLE SURFERS geezer Paul Leary worked with the trio on their chart breakthrough set, TOO HIGH TO DIE (1994) {*7}. Align to the needs of the post-grunge market, but assuming the melodic, mainstream approach, MEAT PUPPETS had a Top 50 hit on their hands by way of `Backwater’. As per usual, the band’s undefinable rollercoaster status confounded fresh fans looking for a `Lake Of Fire’ or other MTV fave, `Plateau’. If `Violet Eyes’, `We Don’t Exist’ or `Severed Goddess Hand’, didn’t move any mountain, then maybe the Appalachian-esque `Comin’ Down’ could.
The raw and humorous NO JOKE! (1995) {*5} follow-up was as suggested in its title; Curt’s wooden warble was weakened by years of substance abuse. An amalgam of potpourri punk, mainstream metal and crossover country was never the ticket to spark an upsurge of interest that could maintain the arena-rock bastions of post-grunge America; `Scum’, `Nothing’ and `Eyeball’ were probably exceptions to the rule.
An enforced hiatus through Cris’s over-indulgence of narcotics (mainly heroin), led to Derrick bailing out; he would kick-start a multi-media company and release a one-off novelty-pop album in ’96 (as singer/guitarist!) entitled “Songs Of Spiritual Uplift As Sung By Today’s Sounds”. Cris, meanwhile, was in a bad way. Although his marriage to Michelle Tardif seemed at first his saviour. Troubles a-plenty with law enforcement agencies and the death of the Kirkwood’s mother (in the fall of ’96), led to further drug episodes for Cris; his breaking point came to a head when Tardif o.d.’d in August ’98. The wayward bassist booked into a rehab clinic but allegedly fell off the wagon (so to speak) on several occasions; the final straw was when, after hitting out, he was shot in the back by a security guard during a scuffle in December 2003; Cris was sentenced to nearly two years in prison, and when released he was free from drugs.
Meanwhile, having relocated to Austin, Texas, Curt Kirkwood finally re-emerged with a new-look MEAT PUPPETS – featuring ex-Pariah members Kyle Ellison (guitar) and drummer Shandon Sahm (son of DOUG SAHM) along with Andrew DuPlantis (bass) – for a sort-of comeback album, GOLDEN LIES (2000) {*5}. Meat-ier than most of the band’s back catalogue, the album cranked up the amps for a set missing much of the sun-baked strangeness of old, but at least partly making up for it with strong, memorable songwriting. A LIVE (2002) {*6} set – featuring songs old and new was lifted from two February ‘01 gigs.
Strong and memorable were two adjectives which wouldn’t be much required in the context of EYES ADRIFT, the pseudo-supergroup consisting of Curt, Bud Gaugh (of SUBLIME) and Krist Novoselic (of NIRVANA fame). Formed in late 2001 after Kirkwood met both musicians on his solo tour, the trio undertook a live stint and finally released their eponymous debut in autumn 2002. Straying aimlessly into the margins of territory which the MEAT PUPPETS used to inhabit with much more presence, EYES ADRIFT (2002) {*4} failed to convincingly fuse the capricious talents of its authors. Both Curt and Bud delivered a further set, an eponymous one going by the name of VOLCANO (2004) {*5}, while a solo CURT KIRKWOOD re-united with ‘Puppets producer Pete Anderson on a country-folk set, SNOW (2005) {*6}; check out `Light Bulb’, `Golden Lies’ and `In Bone’.
Resolving their differences and wayward lifestyles, Curt and Cris were egged on by fans on the internet to re-form the trio in 2006. Bostrom declined the offer, and Ted Marcus positioned himself on the drum-stool when PRIMUS man Tim Alexander bailed. Their first set together since “No Joke!”, the Kirkwood’s RISE TO YOUR KNEES (2007) {*6} fuelled expectations for a return to their halcyon days. Simple psychedelia and ballsy bubblegum shone above the polished parapet of tasty tracks here; `Fly Like The Wind’, `Enemy Love Song’, `Vultures’ and `New Leaf’, satisfying fans from all angles.
Marking Curt’s 50th year on Planet Earth (or somewhere close by), SEWN TOGETHER (2009) {*7} was a tighter affair that belied the classic country cowpoke of the trio’s flighty past. Finding their groove on `Clone’, the title track and the adrenaline-injected `Rotten Shame’, the MP’s were again not shy to get their pop clogs on for `The Monkey And The Snake’, while the ballad-y `Smoke’ was noteworthy.
Sticking to their groovy guns, LOLLIPOP (2011) {*6}, recalled the delights of “Up On The Sun”, albeit with a hootenanny flavour and polished sheen; testament to this was opener `Incomplete’, with `Orange’ squeezing the juices further. Long-time fans of both The BYRDS and ska, `Baby Don’t’ and `Shave It’ respect both genres in a way only the Pups could manage.
Expecting bigger and better things from the back-porch of Curt’s country-fried mind, 2013’s RAT FARM {*6} was another set that attempted to play with the past. Since the early 80s, some three decades in, the Pups were indeed pups, via the addition of Curt’s son Elmo guesting on guitar, while Shandon Sahm (re-installed for the second time from their previous outing), marked out his territory on best-in-show, `One More Drop’, `Leave Your Head Alone’ and `Again’.
When Sahm was side-lined for quondam Bostrom as the MEAT PUPPETS took induction honours at the 2017 Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame awards ceremony, it was inevitable that the newbie’s efforts would be surplus to requirements; he bailed a year later. The vacant spot was again Bostrom’s when the trio-cum-quintet – adding Curt’s son Elmo Kirkwood on guitar and Ron Stabinsky on keyboards – re-grouped for 2019’s DUSTY NOTES {*7}. Flowing with banjo-picking and psych-country flourishes, those already prime Puppets aficionados would also not be surprised when they threw caution to the (Hawk)wind for the schizoid-like `Vampyr’s Winged Fantasy’; a million miles from their C&W standard `Sea Of Heartbreak’ cover. However, the meat, or flesh, on the bones for old fans to chew over came via highlights `Nine Pins’, `Warranty’ and the harpsichord-tinkering `Unfrozen Memory’.
© MC Strong 1994-2003/GRD // rev-up MCS Apr2013-Jun2019

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