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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Uncompromising Meat Puppets Maintain Highly Focused Fury

December 05, 1989|JIM WASHBURN

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — There is a restaurant in Phoenix, not far from the Capitol, where the specialty of the house, no kidding, entails running a slab of marinated beef up a flagpole every morning to let it bubble all day in the desert sun.

It's not difficult to imagine guitarist Curt Kirkwood and his fellow Meat Puppets rising each day to salute that slab because their music is a very kindred thing. As they debuted their "Monsters" album at San Juan Capistrano's Coach House Sunday evening, everything the Arizona outfit attacked had a sizzled, heavily spiced, sun-crazed quality to it.

And attack they did: If Kirkwood could have only one knob on his guitar, it would read "rampage." Though his playing ranged from intricate finger-picking to Mahavishnu-like techno-complexity to shrieking fuzz-tone outbursts--given a particularly metallic edge by the Mexican peso he uses as a pick--all was delivered with an intensity to rival Neil Young's thicket-of-sound approach. Making the solar power trio complete, bassist brother Cris Kirkwood and drummer Derrick Bostrom pummeled along at a furious pace behind him.

As opposed to most thrash and burn outfits, the Puppets maintained a highly focused fury. Uniquely, for a band that equals the be-Marshalled crunch of Motorhead, the Puppets also have been compared to the Grateful Dead: Like that august outfit, the trio uses its recorded songs as points of departure for uncharted musical forays, directed by a nearly telepathic interplay. But where the Dead's excursions can conjure images of pan-galactic sheepherding or similarly ethereal stuff, the Meat Puppets' music played like the soundtrack to a war of angry red ants.

While not as immediately persuasive on disc as its 1987 "Huevos" album, the "Monsters" material performed live proved sufficiently strong to hold up under the band's improvisational onslaught. Matching the ebullient spirit of "Touchdown King," Kirkwood's country-ish finger-picking bounced like water on a hot griddle. "Attacked by Monsters" was a rampaging metal outing, while "Light" allowed a fine example of the brothers' harmony singing, which sounded like an odd cross between R.E.M. and the Louvin Brothers.

The only way the songs didn't benefit from the live treatment was that the lyrics often were lost in the churning mix. Some deserved better, such as the curious combination of childhood bedtime fears and adult nocturnal concerns in "Attacked by Monsters," and the "Like Being Alive's" addressing the disconnection from life that many feel. Whatever the topic, Kirkwood's lyrics are a crafty foil for his guitar work, bristling with a quirky humor.

That humor also held sway in the band's between-song comments such as when, given no apparent impetus, Cris Kirkwood exclaimed, "I blame many of my inadequacies on the public school system." Curt also settled the creationism issue for the audience: "We believe the world was created 45 years ago, and everyone's memory was just implanted in them as a joke."

As individual and uncompromising as the band's approach is, it is still difficult to fathom why the Meat Puppets haven't found the larger success of the Replacements, Bob Mould and other contemporaries. There is a distinctive, imaginative song craft at work in the Puppets' recent material which, coupled with the trio's blistering musicality, could easily snare fans from such disparate camps as R.E.M. and Metallica.

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