We shouldn’t be having this conversation. Seriously. The idea that it’s 20 years later and Dinosaur Jr. has recorded a new album and the Kirkwood brothers have again revived the Meat Puppets—it’s enough to make you wonder that if you push modern medicine hard enough, maybe we can bring D. Boon back to life and put The Minutemen back together. This music, after all, was birthed in a punk-rock culture that gave little credence to the idea of longevity. What sparked tiny Lawndale, Calif., record label SST was an intense impulse to document what was happening now. And that “now” was the 1980s’ expanding punk scene that major labels didn’t have a clue how to handle. Classic rock was big business back then. It ruled the radio and, once CDs arrived, it became a great way to convince consumers to repurchase their record collections. Besides, the big labels thought, who wants to deal with those unkempt, creepy-looking kids?
SST, to its credit, gave its bands the fre e reign to grow into whatever interested them. Bands might start out 120 mph, but each soon adjusted to its inner song. Black flag found faux-metal. The Minutemen discovered Dada. Hüsker Dü wrote pop songs. And the Meat Puppets grabbed hold of a desert funk that meshed mellow Grateful Dead harmonies with a spastic grasp of ZZ-Top guitar licks played with a huff of methamphetamine. The Kirkwood brothers, Curt and Cris, two American stoners from the Arizona desert doing the best they could, quickly calibrated from the messy noise of their self-titled debut to the serpentine licks that underpinned Meat Puppets II and Up on the Sun, albums that taught an entire generation of punks that maybe classic rock and country music weren’t as alien as they seemed. The music simply needed an attitude adjustment.
And adjust the Meat Puppets did. Joining forces with drummer Derrick Bostrom, The Kirkwoods could both relax or flex their musical muscles, coming up with that most endearing of sounds. As vocalists, they could sing in muted harmonies that sounded as if they were putting you on. How could guys that frequently shrieked off-key in demonic glee (check out their cover of “Good Golly Miss Molly” from the EP Out My Way) possibly get so mellow? What sins were they atoning for? And that guitar-playing? Guitar solos were still held in general contempt by ’80s indie-rock audiences, along with a whole litany of unwritten rules of hipster protocol that bands had to skillfully navigate to avoid abandonment and contempt.
Rise to Your Knees is the first album with Cris and Curt Kirkwood working together since 1995’s No Joke! Bostrom, however, declined to participate and Ted Marcus now occupies his seat. The brothers—Cris especially—have been to hell and back, drug addiction dangling the Sword of Damocles. As survivors, the two set out to rediscover their musical souls. Curt took on production duties himself; there would be no more subservience to outside instigators.
The years, however, have worn on the Meat Puppets. Their unrestrained gusto has been replaced with a slower, methodical purging. Opening cut, “fly Like the Wind,” sets the tone. It chugs with a measured finality, Curt
Kirkwood’s vocal sounding chastened, careful to fit the harmony and maintain its balance. The guitars swirl as the song builds to its climax. But there’s no epiphany. No wild moment of abandon. The song has been played, and that will have to suffice. “On the Rise” follows. This time an acoustic guitar lays the groundwork. The music again builds with the help of electric guitars and keyboards, creating a circus-like swirl. But there’s no joy in the vocal, just a steady insistence on completing the task at hand. This eerie feeling haunts the entire album.
Like prisoners on a work-release program hoping their good behavior will be rewarded (or Paul Westerberg in his first post-Replacements moments), the brothers attempt to find solace in solid workmanship and the simple prettiness that arises when melodies find their rightful home. But it’s a lonely, empty feeling that lingers afterward. Curt Kirkwood sounds like a ghost. “Enemy Love Song” is a soothing reggae’d pop song. “Island” bops along like it’s The Wiggles. Years from now, this album could reveal itself as a chilling step. But, as it stands, it’s a frustratingly muted, often lifeless collection of pretty moments. Enough with social gentility—the Meat Puppets should stand up and be heard.