By: Dennis Cook
Not many bands formed in 1980 are still around, let alone putting out some of their richest, most complex and weirdly pleasurable work, but the Meat Puppets have always been an exception to the rule. Sewn Together (released May 12 on Megaforce) is pure music, a lively, gorgeously harmonized swirl of dark and light elements that grabs one with organic force. Capable of quality soaring exploration, hooky conciseness and colorful lyrical nuance, Sewn Together is the equal of seminal Puppets' albums Up On The Sun (1984) and Forbidden Places (1991) with the added boost of being considerably less apocalyptic than their earlier work.
The new record also marks the second studio outing for the reunited Kirkwood Brothers, who form the core of the Meat Puppets. Curt Kirkwood is the singer-guitarist-songwriter and overall architect of their vision, but years of substance abuse and sometimes violent fractiousness with bassist and sibling Cris Kirkwood kept Cris out of the band for a decade starting in 1996. The brothers reconciled in 2006 and Sewn Together shows strong evidence that they're ready to reclaim the powerful legacy they built up in the '80s and '90s.
"I took myself out of the picture so entirely by getting to such an extremely bad place for so fucking long. To actually manage to extract myself from that, with the help of so many people, to actually regain something as precious to me as the Meat Puppets, well, my cup runneth over," says Cris Kirkwood. "That I'm at this point, considering what's gone on, is a fucking miracle."
For American teenagers in the 1980s seeking something richer than what was on the airwaves, discovering the triptych of young, monster talented bands on SST Records - Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets – was a smart, rowdy, uncivilized, sonically exciting life preserver. Neither wholly punk nor AOR-rock, these bands took a very personal, very aggressively engaged approach that borrowed freely from whatever took their fancy and delivered it with the moxie of Jerry Lee Lewis on a handful of little white pills. While the burnout happened fast for the other two bands, the Meat Puppets endured, growing more melodic and jammier as they refined their songcraft and technical skills to nigh epic levels. One hears their influence strongly in Pavement, moe., Cracker and many others who borrowed hungrily from their twisty, psych-friendly, twang embracing blueprint. As such, they remain one of the most influential bands to emerge from that era.
"We get told that a lot, or I read it a lot, but that's one of the things you get pegged with after being around so long. As far as an actual sense of it myself, well, I guess," laughs Kirkwood. "I definitely think that us and a bunch of other bands around back then were the next link in the chain, and then after us another chain link is added on and then another, and so on. Somewhere maybe we're a part of that. That's how tradition and culture is passed on. It's the dubious distinction club [laughs]."
"Meat Puppets [their 1982 debut] was already pretty unorthodox, and Meat Puppets II was just so everybody got the point. Why I got into music in the first place was just the fuckin' open-endedness of it. It fit well with the kind of person I am, and not because I'm particularly attracted to any style of music. I just liked the fact that people liked to make noise. It's this innate quality in humankind, and I was definitely drawn to that. If anything, that [kind of openness] may be one of the influences we had," says Kirkwood. "[Kurt] Cobain took us on TV and tours with him because he was a big fan. One of the things I read him say was we showed him that it didn't have to be loud and fast; the intent could be conveyed in other ways. That's fine that he got that off of us. You can find that other ways but it's cool that he got that from us, too."
Often for non-fans, especially with younger people, if they know of the Meat Puppets it's because of Cris and Curt Kirkwood's appearance on Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance, where the brothers expanded the trio's lineup and Cobain included three of their songs – "Lake of Fire," "Plateau" and "Oh Me" - in the setlist. In the wake of Cobain's suicide and MTV's endless programming of the episode, the Meat Puppets rose swiftly from an underground band with a solid core following to a nationally known quantity with a gold record (1994's Too High To Die). The whole experience is bittersweet, with success opening the door to drug and emotional problems for Cris that culminated in an altercation in 2003 with a post office security guard, who shot Kirkwood during their run-in, and finally landed him in jail for two years. Still, the Meat Puppets had been given the stamp of approval from a newly minted pop culture saint, and for a period it seemed like they might follow Nirvana's suit in terms of popularity.
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