Meat Puppets first burst out of the Arizona desert in the early 80s as one of the key bands on legendary punk label SST. But while they started out loud and fast, they were never really punk. Growing up outside of any scene that would constrain them, they were free to indulge in whatever influence sparked their fancy. Brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood, along with drummer Derrick Bostrom, brewed up a psychedelic stew of punk, country, and classic rock that found an audience among the freaks and weirdos of the emerging alternative nation. Many of them formed bands of their own. Some of them became huge, most prominently Kurt Cobain who turned over a whole segment of Nirvana's Unplugged appearance to a sit-in with Curt and Cris. All the songs they played on Unplugged came from the Pups' legendary second album Meat Puppets II. As great as that album is, its follow-up, 1985's Up On the Sun, is even better. This is where the Meat Puppets truly come into their own, creating intricate compositions with the talent to back them up, yet still retaining a garage band feel.
The title song is a beautiful laid-back jam, meandering in the best way possible. It might seem strange to kick off an album with its most mellow tune, especially for a band still considered punk at the time, but "Up On the Sun" perfectly sets the tone for everything to come. They follow with the instrumental "Maiden's Milk" and the song's intro showcases the band's talent for tricky compositions with Cris' hyperactive basswork leading the way. The song relaxes into a pleasant groove, complete with whistling, and some nice guitar leads from Curt. The band's complex side also comes through later in the album on "Enchanted Pork Fist," which jumps from light-speed prog-fusion to an infectious arena rock chorus and back again, all within two and half minutes. The band also knows how to get funky with Cris and Derrick forming a super tight rhythm section on "Away" and "Bucket Head." If there's any song that deserves all-time classic status, it's the country-flavored "Swimming Ground." A relaxed reminiscence of summer days of yore, one can easily picture this tune covered by a clever bluegrass ensemble or jam band, though it's hard to picture anyone besting the original. The album closes with a pair of reflective songs, the pastoral "Two Rivers" and the metaphysical "Creator."
Meat Puppets continued to make great music for SST throughout the 80s, and moved up to a major label at the dawn of the 90s. Their music may have gotten more mainstream but always retained a uniquely skewed point of view. The Unplugged appearance, as well as the alternative music explosion, exposed them to a wide audience for the first time and they even scored a couple of hits. But substance abuse and personal issues caused the band to fall apart by decade's end. And then, in the late 2000s, came a miraculous return. They've made several great records recently and tour constantly. The material from Up On the Sun is still part of their repertoire, in fact they played a fantastic 10 minute version of the title track at the Bluebird a few years back. Whether you're an old fan or new, a Meat Puppets show is always a good time. And Up On the Sun is a great album to either check out for the first time or revisit after a long absence. It's one of those that just never gets old.
- Adam Reshotko