Release Date: Apr 16, 2013
Record label: Megaforce
Genre(s): Grunge, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Punk/New Wave, Alternative Folk
Here’s what I asked myself after my initial trip through Rat Farm, the new album from the Meat Puppets: What would I think of this record if it hadn’t come from the same band that released Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun? That’s the thing about reviewing the Puppets’ new work. Their Reagan-era masterpieces cast such a huge shadow that it’s hard to listen to new stuff without making comparisons. I don’t think it’s just me.
Meat Puppets fans have been itching for a return to form since bassist and co-founder Cris Kirkwood came back to the fold in 2007. Curious recording decisions, such as the inclusion of synthesizers and studio sheen on 2011's Lollipop, have prevented a concrete follow-up, but realizing people were longing for music in a similar vein as the classic outings Meat Puppets I, II, and Up on the Sun, guitarist/vocalist Curt Kirkwood explained in a press statement that he was attempting to keep their music simple for Rat Farm. He made the conscious decision to write songs around open chords and simple melodies without complicating the songs with too many additional parts or changes, as the brothers Kirkwood tend to do.
It seems a cruel twist of fate that the brothers Meat (Cris and Curt Kirkwood) are most commonly associated with their appearance with Nirvana on MTV Unplugged. Meat Puppets has endured over 30 years as a band, and in that time they’ve split twice, reformed, suffered untold tragedy, and still found time to release a mass of quite startling, and hugely influential albums. Rat Farm will be the Puppets’ 14th release, and it is testament to the Kirkwoods that even this far down the line they’re still sounding inspired and vital.
Arizona’s Meat Puppets are habitually termed ‘survivors’. True in the most literal sense: bassist Cris Kirkwood all but obliterated himself with narcotics. Moreover, their reputation, briefly boosted by Kurt Cobain’s patronage in the ’90s, has stayed intact – rare for a band 33 years and 14 albums old. ‘Rat Farm’ is a worthy addition to their legacy, with the Puppets’ stock moves – gently fried country-rock and psychedelia with Neil Young-worthy guitar solos – used to stirring effect.
Their alt.rock stock rose higher than the sun following Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York endorsement, but Arizona’s Meat Puppets subsequently paid a high price for their mid-90s celebrity status. Bassist Cris Kirkwood, especially, suffered an Icarus-like fall from grace, losing both wife and liberty during a decade spent fighting heroin addiction. The rehabilitated Cris and his songwriting brother Curt finally joined forces again in 2006, and the reconfigured Meat Puppets – also now featuring drummer Shandon (son of Doug) Sahm – have maintained their prolific work rate ever since.
Meat Puppets had their 15 minutes when they joined Nirvana on stage for the taping of MTV Unplugged, and when they released Too High To Die just a couple months later, it became their only gold record, and Backwater became their only single to chart in the Hot 100. But Meat Puppets always deserved better than that. Their sophomore album was arguably the most versatile album on SST or to be labeled “hardcore punk” at all, spanning from that genre to folk, and country songs and classic-rock sounding jams.
Despite a 30-plus year career and 14 studio albums, many have relegated the Meat Puppets to a footnote attached to the Grunge entry in the music encyclopedia, something amounting to “those guys that played with Nirvana on MTV Unplugged. ” Over that time, though, brothers Curt and Chris Kirkwood (and on some recent tours, Curt’s son Elmo) have continued to develop a western-fried blend of genres, well past so many of their scene counterparts. Their latest, Rat Farm, stretches into a deep space haze, everything from reggae to prog rock fused into one intergalactic outsider art sculpture.
From the spluttering hardcore of their first LP through wildcard bassist Cris Kirkwood's lost years, Meat Puppets seemed to chase chaos, musical and otherwise. So when Cris, fresh off a few particularly rocky years, rejoined brother Curt Kirkwood in 2006, once-bitten fans didn't know what to expect, save a certain amount of mania. What they got was anything but: starting with 2007's Rise to Your Knees, the Meat Puppets got good and mellow, trading in their frenzied pacing and Spirograph guitars for a surprisingly even-keeled, weirdness-averse, country-tinged amble.
The Meat Puppets are now older than the dirt they kick up. With their eponymous debut three decades aged, the threesome's 14th studio trek reconfirms their unbelievable comeback. After last decade's drug drama by bassist Cris Kirkwood, older brother Curt continues penning some of the strongest, sweetest, and compellingly twisted material of his already storied songwriting career.