Meat Puppets II (SST '84) Rating: A-
Led by the Kirkwood brothers (Curt on guitar/vocals and Cris on bass/vocals), these guys’ greatest charm is their flat out weirdness and sheer originality. Many of these loose, groovy songs (including three instrumentals) have a laid-back psychedelic country feel but with their own indescribable imprint born from hours of (likely) drug enhanced practice under the scorched Arizona sun. Though there are some punk influenced efforts that take some getting used to (and are more in line with their inferior self-titled debut), most of these songs showcase pretty jangly guitars that weave around simple, catchy melodies. Their weakness, most apparent on the punk-y faster songs, is simply awful singing. When the band keeps things simple and kinda talk-sings things aren’t so bad since the focus is on their unique instrumental interplay anyway, but when they try to wail away in that high register of theirs they can sound laughably amateurish. Overall, though, these flaws are rendered moot by the amazing musicality and incredible inventiveness the band displays on most of these songs (Curt in particular is some sort of idiot savant guitar genius, while drummer Derrick Bostrom capably holds down the bottom end). “Plateau,” “Oh, Me,” and “Lake Of Fire” gained prominence 11 years later when Kurt Cobain, a huge Meat Puppets fan, covered them on Nirvana’s legendary Unplugged In New York show (accompanied by the Kirkwood brothers). That performance reiterated how great some of these songs are (I'm also partial to "Magic Toy Missing," "Lost," "We're Here," and "Climbing"), and how much better they could’ve sounded if they had a decent singer leading the way.
Up On The Sun (SST '85) Rating: A
Here the band eschews their ill-advised punk forays in favor of more jangly guitar melodies that exude a catchy, hazy, laid-back charm. The singing is also vastly improved (again via talk-singing or lower-pitched dual vocals), and the songwriting consistently inventive, though the lovely music here is more in line with early R.E.M. than Nirvana (if you're coming to these guys expecting more of the latter). This is an upbeat, feel good "vibe" type of record with a great summery flow that's best listened to in a single sitting, especially since like Meat Puppets II this is a short album (33:30 according to Wikipedia) containing mostly short songs (it's not unusual for me to just play it all over again when it's done!). This album is so subdued (even the fast songs are mellow) in its low-key majesty that it might take several spins for you to fully appreciate it, but its mysterious, trance-like grooves and poetic, clever lyrics (sample: “well I don’t see no greener pastures, this must be where I belong”) soon become addictive. In fact, I often find myself foolishly dancing around and singing along during the albums catchiest moments (don’t tell anybody). Again, Curt Kirkwood is a wildly ingenious guitar stylist, buttressing up his mates’ bustling grooves (and this is very much a groove-based record) with his distinctive guitar weaves, and the band is always fascinating even when their songs don’t quite click or sound too much alike, which is occasionally the case. The Meat Puppets also have a famously warped sense of humor, and nonsensical lines like “fill up the bucket with whatever you got, make sure it’s something that the bucket likes a lot” (from, appropriately enough, "Buckethead") show why it took so long for this band to get noticed by mainstream ears (and even then only briefly). But more than any other Meat Puppets album, Up On The Sun demonstrates why the select few (like Kurt Cobain) who were captivated by the band’s imaginative music always felt so strongly about them. They made more good albums thereafter, and even improbably scored a minor radio hit with the hard rocking "Backwater" in 1994, but none of them are as effortlessly charming as Up On The Sun.