Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Meat Puppets II

Band: Meat Puppets
Album: Meat Puppets II
Best song: "Oh, Me" is desperation.
Worst song: Overall, there are no bad songs on this album.

Without question, there are many albums that shape our view of rock and roll. I know my own list is huge and I plan on writing more about those albums in the coming weeks.

Meat Puppets II is one of the defining albums of my music listening past because it was the first album I had that showed the promise of independent rock. It represented a time and a genre that could expand into something other than what we'd heard on the radio.

Indeed, my own experience with MPII exists in a time before the Internet. It exists in a time before punk rock was monetized and stylized by the Hot Topics of the world. It exists in a time when "scenes" meant something and when the alternative rock was actually something.

Like many, I discovered the Meat Puppets via Nirvana. When Kurt Cobain brought Curt and Kris Kirkwood up on stage for the band's Unplugged appearance, many of us took notice. Cobain's slight rearranging of three of MPII's best songs -- "Plateau," "Lake of Fire" and "Oh, Me" -- made many of us stand up and look at the Meat Puppets' work.

(That's not to say that everything Cobain loved was gold. He was an avid Bikini Kill fan and -- I'm sorry, Ellen -- I find Bikini Kill to sound wildly dated. He wore Flipper shirts at MTV shows and Flipper kind of sucks.)

Taking the band's whole oeuvre, the Meat Puppets are not a great band. The first record is a nice little hardcore project and some of the later career stuff -- including No Joke, which had a minor radio hit in "Backwater" -- is mostly bland. But MPII is glorious.

Dancing around upbeat, contemplative love songs like "Climb" (with its wonderful non sequitir lyrics) and the dour "Plateau," MPII mixes the band's Western country roots with its modern hardcore, topping it off with hooks and melodies unfit for a hardcore band.

Indeed, the lead riff in "New Gods," a rapid-fire road trip song, is hypnotic and wonderful. The album opener, "Split Myself in Two" is similarly hard and fast, with an even stronger backbeat.


MPII is also interesting in that the Meat Puppets showed people that, well, skill isn't always point number one in great music. I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but it makes for a great record. The Kirkwoods' vocals are strained and often off while the guitar lines are slow and easy to emulate. In an age of Eddie Van Halen -- MPII came out in 1983 at the height of Van Halen's reign -- the Kirkwoods showed that rock and roll guitar needn't be all fingertapping.

(It should be said that there is evidence of guitar skill on the record, namely, the classical guitar instrumental "I'm a Mindless Idiot.")

It's near-impossible to make an album that's truly interesting, but MPII is just that. The lyrics drop Americana like crazy -- the open road and reference to political strife of "Lost," the evangelical Puritan past of "Lake of Fire," the diner love of "New Gods," the folktales of "Plateau," etc. -- and remain an decidedly American album. Unlike the mock country that is much of California's music in the 1970s (hello, Eagles!), the Meat Puppets had some roots and combined them with the styles of the time.

It should be said that the album is not an optimistic one. It's topped with disappointment. The search for the "Plateau" is never resolved, "The Whistling Song" ends with defeat and "Oh, Me" is the most optimistic song on the album:

If I had to lose a mile
If I had to touch feelings
I would lose my soul
The way I do

Detached and contemplative, the lyrics are gorgeous in their search for a meaning. Screeched as they are, the passion runs through the song's easy three-chord melody. As pained as Cobain's interpretation was, the Kirkwoods' is better.


I don't tend to like twang, but MPII is one of the albums that makes me reconsider my position. Like the album's lyrics, it's the type of record to put on while driving on the open road. Bruce Springsteen peddles this music to a larger audience, but MPII does it with more passion and strength.

1 comment:

E.S. said...

It's all right. Bikini Kill does sound pretty dated.