Graded on a Curve:
Meat Puppets,
Monsters

On 1989’s Monsters Phoenix, Arizona’s the Meat Puppets finally got around to doing what they’d been threatening to do for a while–went heavy metal.

For a post-punk band with more in common with the Grateful Dead than the Misfits the move might have seemed a shocker. But with their first three albums the Meat Puppets had proved themselves perhaps the most rapidly mutating organism in the history of rock. They went from mutant hardcore to unhinged psychedelic country to mystico-desert funk, so why not metal? On the albums that followed their third LP, 1985’s oddly syncopated and incorrigibly cheerful Up on the Sun, they made the occasional foray into heavier territory—just check out the very ZZ Top “Automatic Mojo” from Monsters’ predecessor, 1987’s Huevos. But it wasn’t until Monsters that the Meat Puppets began taking musical growth hormones and iron supplements and commenced to Sabbath out.

The only potential shocker was the Meat Puppets impetus for the change of direction: commercial ambition. Noted drummer Derrick Bostrom, the band had decided it was time to sign to the bigs, and heavy music was their way of doing it: “It was kind of a reaction to the whole Bon Jovi mentality of the time: ‘Let’s try to show the world that we can be a mainstream rock band.’” It was a quixotic quest; no one was going to mistake the Meat Puppets for Bon Jovi, or anybody else rocking the pop charts.

And commercially their big metal move was doomed from the start, for the simple reason that Curt Kirkwood is no Rob Halford. (Nor is his brother Kris, with whom he often harmonizes). Curt doesn’t project. You could amplify his vocals to the nth power and they still wouldn’t reach the back of the arena. And his vocals are 100% menace free. Kirkwood oozes laid-back Arizona nice guy charm; he doesn’t have an ounce of Iron Man in him. Hell, he doesn’t even sound like he’s trying, which is partly what makes their albums so wonderful. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau hit the nail on the head when he wrote of Monsters, “this is really the guitar-god record Curt Kirkwood always had in him,” before adding, “What’ll keep them from turning into plutonium is the utterly unmacho vocals.”

Friendly—that’s the word that sums up the Meat Puppets. You like them because they’re down to earth in a spacey way and you would love to share a bong with them or maybe drop some acid and beat the Arizona heat by following them down to the “Swimming Ground” they sing about up on Up on the Sun. And they’re cheerfully and hopelessly optimistic as well: the happy-go-lucky lines, “I got a shirt that costs a dollar twenty-five/I know I’m the best dressed man alive” tell you everything you need to know about Curt Kirkwood’s positive outlook on life.

Monsters opens on a big metal note with the crusher “Attacked by Monsters,” with its Godzilla power chords and Bostrom’s thunderous drum crash. Meanwhile Curt Kirkwood goes guitar god indeed, acting like a guy who’s been waiting his entire life to trade in his axe for a chainsaw. “Light” is a crunchier take on their old sound—Up on the Sun pumped up on steroids. Curt and Kris sing harmony, melodically stretching out the word “Light” like lysergic cowboys. The odd stroke is the phantom, seemingly synthesized sound—it must be the work of an effects pedal because there’s nothing on the album credits to account for it. And the lyrics are as unmacho as Curt’s voice: lines like “Fiery spider/Candy stars in bloom/Crystal fire fractures/Sparks into the room” aren’t metal tropes any more than the lines “Hot pink volcano in the heart of the tornado/Is shaking the lemonade tree” from Up on the Sun’s “Hot Pink.”

“Meltdown,” on the other hand, is just what its title says it is. The song is structured in the classic Meat Puppets manner, but the drums are Bonham school, the riff is humongous, and the guitar is all effects-pedal swoop and drive, that is when it isn’t pure hyperdrive mean. This is the sound of a traditional metal band melting beneath the remorseless Arizona sun, and it’s enthralling. “In Love” is another “Light”–the brothers’ primitively melodic harmonizing is classic Meat Puppets, but Kirkwood sounds like he’s playing a guitar borrowed from Billy Gibbons.

“The Void” is the heaviest and least melodic song on the album. It’s a big-bottomed Sabbath-in-the-desert skullcrusher, with a barbaric guitar riff that makes you think maybe the Meat Puppets aren’t such nice guys after all. For those who love the Puppets for their melodic bent, it may go too far—they throw the baby out with the bathwater when they dispense with melody in their pursuit of the big, bad bottom. But it weighs a ton, and if you were to sell it as scrap metal you’d make decent bucks.

“Touchdown King” is another metalled-up slice of Puppets traditionalism, with the boys singing like stoned choirboys to a fetching melody. It’s probably the most likeable song on the album—sounds like a hybrid of the Grateful Dead and ZZ Top—and it has a loose jam band feel fortified by a guitar that’s been plugged into an amp the size of a National Park. A real guitar showcase, it is, and it works. The wonderfully titled “Party Til the World Obeys” opens with lots of spacey guitar and musical tomfoolery. Then Bostrom enters stage left wielding twenty-pound drum sticks and commences hammering on the skull of Odin. Like “The Void” it’s short on melody and long on sheer atomic weight. It doesn’t even make partying sound like much fun.

The instrumental “Flight of the Fire Weasel” is three-plus minutes of high-octane sagebrush boogie—imagine ZZ Top on acid speeding past cacti and startled antelope jackrabbits in a funny car built for three. On “Strings on Your Heart” the Kirkwoods sing like cracked angels while Curt turns crazy Catherine Wheels on his guitar, before the song slows to a heavy as heaven crawl. Then the boys get back up on their hind legs and Kirkwood returns to setting tumbling tumbleweeds ablaze.

“Like Being Alive” opens with Kirkwood’s guitar soaring above a slow but heavy drum beat, before the song commences to slouch towards Bethlehem. Problem is the song is all dirge and no dance, and the melody doesn’t enchant. That said, I love the goofy spoken word takeout: “Oh, I’m drifting away/Just imagine being eaten by a giant doo-doo log with teeth.” Guess that’s what they mean by being attacked by monsters.

Monsters sounds like it was recorded on a steady diet of mushrooms, iron filings, and Red Bull—it’s a muscle car fueled by powerful psychedelics driven by a trio of nice guys getting their Led Zeppelin on. These likeable touchdown kings are the unlikeliest power trio to ever make a big din. Do they give up too much of what makes them great in songs like “The Void”? Perhaps. But they never surrender their sense of childlike wonder. In Meat Puppetsland even the monsters are lovable, because try as they might, the Kirkwoods can’t help but be cheerful cusses. File Monsters under friendly metal, then crank it up.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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