The finest moment in the Meat Puppets’—hell, maybe the entire Amerindie—catalog comes 1:41 into 1984’s “Plateau,” when stoned space-case Curt Kirkwood’s nimble acoustic finger-picking and melancholy mumblings concerning buckets, birds, and talk-show hosts slams headfirst into a Technicolor burst of shimmering acid-guitar chords, launching the tune out of the Arizona (Mexico? Greenland?) foothills and straight into the stratosphere. There’s nothing quite so transcendent on the new Rise to Your Knees, but given its backstory—the first Meat Puppets studio effort in seven years, and the first in 12 to feature the bass playing and sweetly inharmonious harmony vocals of Kirkwood’s brother, Cris, who for a decade or so was ravaged by a severe heroin addiction—the fact that the album exists at all is a minor miracle.
It also happens to be, if not a great Meat Puppets record, then at least a pretty good one. Curt has been touting Knees as of a piece with his band’s much-fetishized 1980s SST output, which established the sun-baked Arizonian trio as the biggest—and most adventurous, if not exactly the most musically adept—bunch of weirdos on a label packed to the gills with ’em. In truth, the new record skews more traditional, spurning all traces of the Puppets’ early punk (as expected) or more recent heavy-metal (thank God) proclivities in favor of a jangly, quasi-rootsy, pleasantly sloppy approach.
So the highlights are subtler—Curt’s strangled guitar leads on “Vultures,” Cris’s bucolic guitjo plucking on “Tiny Kingdom,” the brothers’ vaporous vocal harmonies on “Disappear”—but also more tuneful. As a lyricist, Curt remains impressively impressionistic, fashioning evocative portraits out of seemingly random images—ice on fire, crap on shoes, a trip to the, um, mall—though his delivery is thoroughly deadpan, practically deflated. In playing it straight, however, the Pups emphasize their abilities as skilled synthesists rather than merely falling back on their rep as inspired eccentrics, suggesting a band that, though grounded, has yet to plateau.
The Meat Puppets play the Knitting Factory August 29-30, knittingfactory.com