Perfection in art is for subjective fools. The goal of any real artist is purity, and purity is a state of mind. Hamlet knew and told us. To thine own self, be true. In 2007, with the wayward absence of bassist Cris Kirkwood a hiccup since passed, the Meat Puppets simultaneously reformed and pledged a singular ferIn 2007, with the wayward absence of bassist Cris Kirkwood a hiccup since passed, the Meat Puppets simultaneously reformed and pledged a singular fervent purpose. Complete resurrection. That's no small order. This is, after all, a band that stands out as one of the most illuminous sparks highlighting the first, and most overtly accomplished, coming of American indie rock, those golden and precious years lying roughly between 1979 and 1985. An era so filled with purity, it reigns supreme to this day with an embarrassment of musical riches. Many of them straight from the fingers of Kirkwood/Kirkwood/ Bostrom.
Always recognized as an extremely dexterous and deft live act, the Puppets used 2008 to continue to stretch out the new line up (with Ted Marcus now a full time replacement for founding drummer Derrick Bostrom). The band joined Built to Spill, and later, Stone Temple Pilots, for well received jaunts across the U.S. The Puppets also toured Europe, and took part in each of the 2008 All Tomorrow's Parties festivals, performing Meat Puppets II as part of ATP's Dont Look Back series. By year's end, the shows were "almost" 100% acoustic. "Almost" because Curt was playing a Gibson Hummingbird plugged into his pedal board, allowing him to work his eboard, allowing him to work his effects just like an electric guitar. The simplicity of the set up belied the sort of arresting dynamics that Muse and Radiohead aim to capture, albeit by spending tens of thousands of quid in arena production.
Signed in early 2008 to ultra-artist friendly Megaforce Records, the Puppets found themselves once again at work exploring the vast creative landscape that has defined the band since it burst forth with its majestic debut for SST, Meat Puppets. In between '08 tours, the Puppets wrote and recorded a new album, Sewn Together, the trio's second full length since 2007. Sewn Together began with the band laboring under all sorts of questions as to what artistic and sonic direction it would strike.
Afterall, band leader Curt Kirkwood openly acknowledged the rather brusque approach he chose in crafting the one-off made for Anodyne Records, "Rise To Your Knees":
"In the ‘80s, we used to just crap this stuff out," he notes. "Those SST records cost, like, five grand apiece, if that much, and those are the records that made people like us. Later, when we got into a position to work in bigger studios with outside people, we'd wind up spending a whole bunch of money and having to satisfy the people who gave us that money. We did that all through the ‘90s, and I'm just not interested in doing that anymore."
"Now, if I can get away with it, I'll make a record as cheap as I can and put as little work as I can into it, which is what we did with this one. I don't like putting a lot time into it. We cut a track, and if we've played it halfway right, we're done with it."
Of course, none of Curt's ideas about how to effectively make a record degrade the music he crafts. Integrity grips him as if a Viking vise. Like Dylan, he is merely determined to streamline, to avoid overthinking and obsessing with studio elements. He has delivered a living catalogue of historical records, using close to primitive tools. It is a lesson in technique that today's too-pimped up pop "artists" ought to study, and thankfully, there are a few bands that do.
In the case of the new album, Curt and Cris chose a home town studio that oIn the case of the new album, Curt and Cris chose a home town studio that offered analog process. To help add purity. And with production helmed by Curt, creative freedom arrived du jour. With no contrived map to follow, the best friend of artistry -spontaneity- governed. Indeed, going into the studio, only Curt knew what songs he planned to cut. The label didn't ask and neither did the band. When the guiding minstrel is as honed and proven as Curt, it is both easy and incumbent to roll with the pitch.
True to his vows not to beat down a session, in less than two weeks' time Curt had effectively corralled his necessary and sufficient musical elements: the songs, the band, his son Elmo, the compatible recording team at the Salt Mine Studio in Mesa, and Phoenix-based pianist William Joseph. Joseph's role illustrates how spontaneity is a giving gift. He was initially invited into the studio to help with some fills, yet by day's end, was contributing a bounty of beautiful passages that bespeak a mature flushing out of Curt's deeply embedded genetic sense of melody. Witness "Sapphire," "Clone," and "Smoke." At first listen, one is tempted with an impression of experimental Pink Floyd "Wall" like channeling here, but accuracy's sake will note that the operatic idiom behind these songs has been exhibited at least as far back as 1995's "No Joke", and subsequent trials from Curt's solo master piece, "Snow", and the texturally generous "Rise To Your Knees".
Now, however, the breadth of instrumentation is no longer in the back seat. It's right there in the guts of the entire record. And while it is not overstatement to declare a connection here to the heights of the E Street Band, the results from last summer's sessions clearly continue the Puppets' trademark forging of subtle yet iconoclastic lyrical sweetness and remarkable musicianship. Were a short description required, confidence is the defining term and attitude. This is a record that is brilliantly framed by the band's sometimes folksy, always fluid wanderings. The Puppets gladly let the material step out as first fiddle, content with understanding songs this strong only come along once in a great while, and better to serve them than the other way around.
It is what makes the Puppets musings so difficult to classify. They ambitiously dart the melodic spectrum between buoyant pop structure like album-opener Sewn Together and the grand sweep of "Clone", two of the precision-perfect gems that will come to represent this record as a keeper. The album rides to close in pure pop fashion. The infectious "Love Mountain", a song that harkens back better than a decade, at last weaving itself free of Curt's inner aware-ness, emerges taut yet jangly enough to please George Harrison and George Martin. That's no exaggeration, either. Sure, absolutely, Springsteen and the Beatles and Pink Floyd are mighty comparisons, but let's face it, what is due is due. Beatles and Pink Floyd are mighty comparisons, but let's face it, what is due is due.
Looking ahead, to May '09, the Puppets start the first leg of extensive road work celebrating the new record, but as with every Puppets' tour, the show will be certain to range over the course of performance afforded it by the Puppets' endearingly adventurous career . The Sewn Together tour kicks off May 12th in Los Angeles at the Mint.