The most far-out of the classic 80s American hardcore punk bands (and that’s actually saying something – Minutemen and Hüsker Dü were no straight-ahead rockers), Meat Puppets became famous in a limited capacity thanks to three songs off their second album being covered on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York. That’s where I first encountered them as well – those songs stood out not just because they were more obscure than the other covers on that great live album, but also because their bizarre imagery combined with Cobain’s yelps for an indelibly surreal passage full of warped humour in the midst of an otherwise painful document of Cobain’s mental deterioration.
Meat Puppets were indeed weird and full of warped humour throughout their career – not just on the country-garage-rock of Meat Puppets II, but also amidst the psychedelic flirtations of Up on the Sun and the heavy metal crunch of Monsters, on both of which there was a playfulness that punctured any inflated sense of self-seriousness. Meat Puppets often sounded like they were goofing about rather than trying to make millions of dollars, even if the guitars did hit home with furious precision and the rhythm section never faltered. Mostly this was due to lead guitarist/vocalist Curt Kirkwood, whose vocals were so blasé it sounded like it would be a monumental effort for him to sing in tune – an effort he usually wasn’t willing to make.
Dusty Notes, their first album with original drummer Derrick Bostrom since 1995, starts off being as strong and as weird as they’ve ever been, with a trilogy of country-rockers that keep on blossoming into surprise and beauty the more you listen to them. “Warranty” features muffled guitar noise buzzing around and underneath some melodic singing about dusty books and an “invisible man”, ultimately making it sound like a bee circling “purple flowers”, which the song namechecks. The following “Nine Pins” is even more charming, with a banjo backdrop creating a rustic glow, as bright as the moon that “shines down” later on in the chorus. Yet it’s piano that sweetens the minor key chords of the fine opening trilogy’s final song, “On”, a piano which in some ways recalls Bobbie Nelson’s work for her brother in its unaffected gorgeousness, particularly when an acoustic guitar joins it in a spirit of camaraderie on the instrumental break. “Like an old broken record/It just keeps playing on.” You wish it would.
Instead, a rather meandering track called “Unfrozen Memory” follows, which fails to be enlivened by the addition of a harpsichord, as piano and banjo did enliven the previous two songs. And music doesn’t so much “blow through an open door” on the title track as evaporate into the atmosphere before it’s had a chance to settle, even if acoustic guitar and piano once again have a chance to wrap their loving arms around each other in musical unison on the instrumental break.
It’s the country-rock moments that comprise the rest of the highlights on the album, appropriately for a band whose most famous record is still the countryish II. These highlights include a stonking swift run through Don Gibson’s “Sea of Heartbreak”, which was famously covered by Johnny Cash in his latter-era career revival, but has much more of a spring in its step than that version thanks to some galloping piano and punchy drumming. Another one is the closing “Outflow”, which goes for the feel of a timeless country ballad and to some extent achieves it, with its natural imagery of wind, rain, mountains, rivers and deserts attached to a loping, lovely, singalong melody.
The album gets ponderous and misfires elsewhere, as on the ironically somnolent “The Great Awakening” and the more appropriately somnolent “Nightcap”. “Vampyr’s Winged Fantasy” meanwhile tries to recapture the feel of the heavy metal homages of Monsters, a neat idea in theory, so as to change the pace up, but awkward and clunky in practice. They sound like a Slayer tribute band who’ve written some Spinal Tap lyrics to go with the music (“Bat leather banquet/Drink your human wine”, sheesh). It’s hard to tell if it’s all intended as a joke, but it’s not funny or weird enough for you to care.
This strangest of classic bands keeps on being strange in their old age, then. Which in many ways makes them not in the least bit strange at all.