'94 was THE year for the Meat Puppets. First, their CD "Too High To Die," produced by Butthole Surfers guitarist Paul Leary, and containing the minor hit (but a hit nonetheless), "Backwater," sold 500,000 copies. That was more than the entire Meat Puppets catalog had sold to date. Next, the Kirkwood brothers, guitarist/vocalist Curt and bassist Cris, were invited by Kurt Cobain to appear on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged In New York for performances of "Plateau", "Oh Me" and "Lake Of Fire," all from "Meat Puppets II." Cobain's passionate and personal performance on "Lake Of Fire" became a cult favorite.
So the combination of "Too High To Die," "Blackwater" (the group's only charting single) and the Nirvana connection, took the Meat Puppets to the height of their popularity. But their story began over a decade earlier in Paradise Valley, AZ.
The Kirkwood brothers and drummer Derrick Bostrom launched the Meat Puppets in '80. They had definite Punk leanings, while managing to incorporate Country, Thrash and psychedelic elements. The group took their name from the title of a song Curt wrote that appeared on the group's '82 self-titled debut for the legendary Punk label, SST.
'83 effort, "II," featured more stylistic diversity. Then the post-Punk got dumped. "Up On The Sun," released in '85, marked a major shift; less noise while displaying more intricate and melodic tendencies. Regularly, they took on jam-band traits (extended songs driven by lengthy guitar solos). The following year saw "Out My Way." While touring, Curt managed to get his finger caught in their van's door, breaking it. That took the group off the road and delayed the release of "Mirage" until '87. Less than six months later, the "off the cuff, recorded in one-take," "Huevos" (with Curt's Mexican flavored cover art) arrived. "Monsters," had the extended "Touchdown King" and "Flight Of The Fire Weasel." The '89 album turned out to be the Meat Puppets last for SST.
Not all groups aspire to sign with a major label. But groups that do usually make one or two albums on an indie before moving on. If a group is going to do it, the time to move is early. The Meat Puppets had been with SST for seven years. Their reputation rested on modest selling albums, listened to by young Cobains around the country, and brutal, small venue shows. Maybe their time had passed? Nah, not just yet.
While '91's "Forbidden Places" was a solid major label debut it was "Too High To Die" that resonated. But as so often happens, the group self-destructed. "No Joke," limped out in '95. Cris was a heroin addict given to erratic behavior if he was able to function at all. The CD became the original lineup's swan song for the decade.
The Meat Puppets' return took an odd course. Curt started the Royal Neanderthal Orchestra in the late '90s. But since no one had much interest in the Royals, they were renamed the Meat Puppets and released a few albums. Curt also showed up in a couple other groups and even issued a solo album, "Snow." Bostrom kept busy serving as the keeper/manager of the group's legacy.
Cris' addictions, a combination of shooting up and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, left him crazed and grossly overweight. An altercation with an elderly woman at a Phoenix post office on December 26th, '03, pushed him over the edge. It resulted in Cris getting clubbed by a security guard. As he attempted to leave the scene he was shot in the back. No doubt, the security guard felt Cris was still a threat. He survived but the downward spiral continued. Cris ran afoul of the law (drug arrests and parole violations) and wound up in prison - released in '05.
Out of the slammer, Cris met with his semi-estranged brother and the two decided to put the Meat Puppets back together (with drummer Ted Marcus). In the interim, Cris quit heroin, and Ben & Jerry's, shedding nearly all the weight he'd put on.
Their comeback set "Rise To Your Knees" arrived in '07. It was followed, two years later, by the appropriately titled "Sewn Together," the Meat Puppets' 12th album and their first effort for the Megaforce imprint. Shandon Sahm, who had been with the band during their "Golden Lies" era, returned on drums, replacing Marcus.
The album "Lollipop" dropped in '11.
1982 Meat Puppets
1984 Meat Puppets II
1985 Up On The Sun
1991 Forbidden Places
1994 Too High To Die
1995 No Joke!
2000 Golden Lies
2007 Rise To Your Knees
2009 Sewn Together
The Meat Puppets have three distinct styles: Post-Punk/pre-Grunge ("Meat Puppets" and "II"), Hippie Rock ("Up On The Sun") and post-Grunge ("Too High To Die").
In the latter mode, the group was at their commercial peak. With songs, "Never To Be," "Flaming Heart" and "Roof With A Hole," it could be argued they were at their creative zenith too. That "Backwater" was only a minor hit is confounding. Few songs are as lyrically strong, melodically effective and sonically brilliant. That it didn't race right up the charts begs the question "what does it take?"
The Meat Puppets early work shouldn't be overlooked. Their debut, and especially "II," have a jagged-edge appeal that's indisputable. Then there's Curt's high-pitched yet forceful warble that sounds like a post-Punk Geddy Lee. These are raw, emotional albums that clearly point the way to the coming Grunge wave. It's little wonder Cobain used them as a touchstone.
From the mid-80s through the early '90s, the Meat Puppets opened their sound drawing on Country, Blues and even pre-psychedelic motifs. The recordings were clearer, cleaner and more fluid but less dense, challenging or passionate. They probably would have fit in playing a '66 free concert with the Grateful Dead at Golden Gate Park (in SF) or touring with the '68 "Sweethearts Of The Rodeo" edition of the Byrds.
"Rise To Your Knees" (a great title) offers a relatively measured Meat Puppets' return. They alternate between a late-60's trippy vibe and early-70's style Country Rock with some songs getting a Punk singe. While "Rise To Your Knees" has a handful of good songs, namely "Radio Moth," the CSN variant "Enemy Love Song" and the heady "Light The Fire," the album never achieves the momentum to put it over.
That problem continues on "Sewn Together" but it's not nearly as pronounced. The Folk-oriented title track is a strong start. "I'm Not You" could pass for an Eagles song with harder, deeper vocals, while "The Monkey And The Snake" is a double-time Country jaunt. "Sapphire," with its delicate acoustic guitar, is a pleasing surprise but the uptempo "Rotten Shame" is the high water mark.
"Lollipop" is the Meat Puppets back in their Hippie Rock/Country mode. The drowsy vocals fit the laid-back vibe as the band veers occasionally toward 'Tom Petty doing The Byrds'. "Incomplete," "Shave It" and "Baby Don't," which has a classic Country riff at its root, are innate charmers. "Orange," driven by a propulsive beat, and "Lantern" are Country Rock while "Hour Of The Idiot" turns decidedly toward Rock.
An album's closing track is often a toss off. By that point a listener either likes the album or doesn't, so what does it matter? From the title "The Spider And The Spaceship" it might seem the Meat Puppets are ending "Lollipop" just that way. But the acoustic song is actually pretty funny as the band takes on peanuts - among other things.