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Arts and Culture

Cows Don't Mean a Thing

This and other observations from the Meat Puppets.

By Adrian Mack 21 Apr 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Adrian Mack contributes a regular music column to The Tyee and frequently sits behind Rich Hope.

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Meat Puppets - there was a time when they would have eaten that cactus.

We all figured the game was up in 2003 when Cris Kirkwood took a bullet in the back during an altercation with a security guard in Phoenix, Arizona. By this point, mildly exaggerated reports of Kirkwood's demise had become pretty routine. The fallen Meat Puppets bassist had been seen jabbing a needle into a gaping stomach abscess in one memorably horrific field report from the junkie ghetto. Getting himself gunned down came as a surprise to no one. Surviving the shooting, overcoming his addictions in jail, and then re-joining the massively influential band he'd started in 1980 with his brother, guitarist-vocalist Curt -- that surprised everyone.

Their first new album together since 1995, Rise to Your Knees (2007), was filled with gentle, circular, mid-tempo numbers that seemed to speak, between the lines, to the awesome persistence of life itself. There was little of the desert-baked, acid-fried fire we heard from the peak '80s albums, Meat Puppets II and Up On the Sun. But the band's lysergic poetry was intact, as was Curt's disconsolately flat voice, and a general gift for getting under your skin that was almost always there in the greater and lesser albums the Meat Puppets put out over the years.

Last week, the band released Lollipop, its third record since the Kirkwoods reunited (with latest drummer Shandon Sahm in tow). It's a weird, ramshackle affair, and not necessarily Meat Puppets-weird in the way that you might expect. The Pups seems intent on goofing around with a host of incongruous styles for half of the album, as in the ominous Tubeway Army synths of opener "Incomplete." And what's with "Orange"? Super-distorted bass, concrete bunker drums, gruesome electronics -- what are they, now, Killing Joke?

And unless you're the one person on earth who isn't fazed by hearing the Meat Puppets copping a breezy Caribbean lilt, "Shave It" is even stranger still. You'd put it in a Captain Morgan or maybe a Sandals Resort commercial if it wasn’t for Kirkwood's terminally zonked-sounding voice announcing right off the top that "I don't enjoy the sunshine." I think that's what he's singing, anyway (it'd make as much sense as anything). Somehow, Curt manages to squeeze a molten guitar solo between the steel drums as the song fades out.

There's also big-boned raga in "The Way That It Are," Sun Records-meets-the-Grateful Dead on "Baby Don't," and a completely adorable campfire oompah lullaby for stoner parents called "The Spider and the Spaceship." Any one of those numbers works on its own bizarre terms, if you adjust for the shock. Others don't, like the charmless and ineffectual "Vile."

Where Lollipop sounds most like any version of the Meat Puppets past -- the sinewy, country punk of "Lantern," the folk-noir of "Town," the solid, '90s-issue alt rock of "The Hour of the Idiot" -- it's like hanging with an old and slightly slower friend who's taken to living off the grid. As is the custom with any of their records, Curt's natively surreal imagination gradually begins to surface; "Cows don't mean a thing" in "Damn Thing," eating peanuts "may somehow not fit into nature's great scheme" in "The Spider and the Spaceship"; and "this dog food tastes alright" in "The Way That It Are."

It all collides beautifully in the aforementioned single "Damn Thing," which manages to be warm, strange, and crotchety all at the same time. If the rolling, jangle-folk of the Decemberists "Down by the Water" happens to be your bag, "Damn Thing" is every bit as catchy. Since the Kirkwoods have been either gazing into the abyss or staring at the sun for far longer than God usually permits, it's also about a 100 per cent more authentic.  [Tyee]

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