Fresh Meat for Rotting Puppets

With a new lineup and reissued back catalog, the last great punk band of the '80s gets lost on the freeway again

That's a typically self-deprecating line from the meek, reserved musician, but it's also utter nonsense. This new resident of Richard Linklater's hometown was among the first rock figures to affect the now-token slacker pose. With the Reagan-era Meat Puppets, Kirkwood used the feigned carelessness of his warbling singing voice to disguise the lofty themes embedded in his music. Paired with the whine of his never-quite-harmonizing brother, he sounded not just stoned, jaded, or apathetic, but borderline manic. And like imitators ranging from J. Mascis to Joan of Arc's Tim Kinsella, the singer always sounds as if he were simultaneously indulging and defeating depression.

Ultimately, Kirkwood's music is about redemption--and the ability to find it not in punk anger but in the beauty of a suburban desert wasteland. Listen to how Meat Puppets II stages a battle between hope and lethargy. On "Lost," Kirkwood roams the freeways, only to end up locked in his attic. "Plateau" is a long, existential hike that ends with the quip "Who needs action when you've got words?" And Up on the Sun shows how much cheerier the Meat Puppets seem when Curt zips his lip. Similarly, the instrumental "Maiden's Milk" is the happiest tune the Kirkwoods ever composed, with the brothers playfully sliding up and down their fretboards like children chasing each other through the Arizona twilight.

Like his greatest student, Kurt Cobain (who performed three Meat Puppets II classics with the Kirkwoods during Nirvana's legendary MTV Unplugged performance), Curt writes his best songs when he is giving form to the battles in his cranium. And listeners new to the Meat Puppets may well hear some of the late icon's howl trapped inside Kirkwood's off-key crooning. Cobain may have taught himself how to play guitar, but Meat Puppets II taught him how to sing, and the resemblance is often frightening--as if the two were possessed by the same miserable muse. With his flesh-and-blood slipping into Cobain's old morass, and Ugly Kid Joe wannabes snickering behind him, Kirkwood, one hopes, will soon trap that muse once again.

Meet the new Meat Puppets: (left to right) Andrew Duplantis, Shandon Sahm, Curt Kirkwood, Kyle Ellison, and band's best friend
Meet the new Meat Puppets: (left to right) Andrew Duplantis, Shandon Sahm, Curt Kirkwood, Kyle Ellison, and band's best friend

 

Meat Puppets perform Sunday, June 6 at Grand Old Day; (651) 699-0029. They'll also perform Monday, June 7 at the 400 Bar; (612) 332-2903.

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