By Elise Thompson
This review originally appeared on The Los Angeles Beat site on March 30.
By their appearance in the two videos released for "Dusty Notes," it looks like the Kirkwood Brothers have fully given in to their Appalachian mountain man vibe, with their scraggly beards and jug band style. In the video for "Nine Pins," the Meat Puppets play the bluegrass-influenced tune in a forest clearing with straightforward simplicity, unlike their super-psychedelic video for "Warranty," a song with a "Ghost Riders in the Sky" spookiness and rhythm.
The Meat Puppets started out on punk label SST back in the early '80s, releasing one traditionally hardcore album before slowing things down and expanding into a softer, psychedelic sound on "Meat Puppets II." They were the perfect band for road trips and for taking psychedelics. Their music has always sounded best in nature. Maybe that's because the first time I saw them was out in the desert night a million miles from anywhere, tripping at The Gila Monster Jamboree.
The trio has had some rocky times, breaking up right after getting massive exposure on MTV's "Nirvana Unplugged" and releasing "Too High to Die." They have continued to play and record in various permutations since then.
"Dusty Notes," their first album with original drummer Derrick Bostrom since 1995's "No Joke," is much more thoughtful and fine tuned than their previous albums. The addition of Curt's son, Elmo, on rhythm guitar and the piano stylings of keyboardist Ron Stabinsky have given them a much fuller sound. They use their new extended lineup on the ambitious "Vampires Winged Fantasy," where they get all freaky with menacing vocals and soaring guitars. It will be a nice addition to our Halloween compilation and I appreciate them using an archaic adjectival form.
Fans who haven't heard from the Meat Puppets since the hard-rocking "Rat Farm" of 2013 might be in for a surprise. This country-influenced sound has evolved over years of playing live shows, not in the studio. But it's not as if it came out of nowhere, the band has been experimenting with this sound since "Meat Puppets II." They always had a certain country vibe, which has caused them to be referred to as pioneers of "cowpunk." Their earlier explorations are evident in songs like "Comin' Down," "Lost" and "Magic Toy Missing."
Two of the strongest examples of this evolution on "Dusty Notes" are "Sea of Heartbreak," a song so country you could two-step to it, and "Outflow," a waltzing ode to the desert which could be sung in a chapel in Bakersfield.
But seriously, what is up with all the banjo? This album has so much banjo. In the video, Curt is playing it, but Cris is credited with playing it on the record. A friend of the band's told me that the banjo was Cris' first instrument, which he was inspired to pick up because of the movie, "Deliverance." Which is SO punk, because the banjo was used as an instrument of terror in that movie.
No matter the influence, The Meat Puppets have always had an instantly recognizable sound that allows them to weave in different musical styles without getting lost. The title track of "Dusty Notes" contains highly detailed arrangements. But while you are spacing out on the heavy ornamentation, the reliable chord progressions and interlocking rhythms keep you in the groove. With the brothers' trademark ethereal harmonies, and Curt's poetic lyrics, this new album reassures us that the Meat Puppets still can provide a calming vibe to tether you to earth while complex instrumentals carry you aloft.
I award "Dusty Notes" five Tabs of Acid out of five.