In the years he was in the spotlight, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain brought attention to a number of artists who might not otherwise have received notice. The Vaselines, the Raincoats, the Wipers, Daniel Johnston – they all benefited from Cobain’s cheerleading.
None of them took the rock scene by storm the way Nirvana did, but there’s no question that Cobain played an integral part in their indie popularity.
The same can be said of the Meat Puppets, an alt-rock trio from Phoenix. The group found a fervent admirer in Cobain, who first saw the trio open for hardcore punk group Black Flag when he was a teenager. The Puppets not only toured with Nirvana in 1993, but three of their songs were covered on the band’s bestselling “MTV Unplugged” album; Curt and Cris Kirkwood, the brothers who founded the Meat Puppets, also played on those “Unplugged” tracks.
But it’s not really fair to discuss the band strictly through its connection with Nirvana, because it’s influential in its own right. A number of groups that emerged on the fringes of rock during the pre-grunge era – Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh – have cited the Meat Puppets as a source of inspiration, and their unusual style helped establish a small ’80s subgenre known as “cowpunk.”
The group’s self-titled debut came out in 1982, one of the first releases on Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn’s independent label SST Records. Although it’s a mostly straightforward punk album, there’s an unusual, almost indescribable sensibility that’s unique to the brothers Kirkwood: In between the blasts of noise and fury, you’ll find a few tracks that hint at the demented genre-mashing they’d later perfect, the sound of an inebriated punk vocalist teaming up with an even drunker honky-tonk guitarist.
Then came “Meat Puppets II” (1984), arguably the most famous title in their catalogue – all three of those Nirvana covers (“Plateau,” “Lake of Fire” and “Oh, Me”) came from this one. It’s an impossible album to describe, and it’s constantly shifting its focus and evolving from one style to another. Ramshackle, psychotic, almost alien and sung in an off-key warble, it’s an endearing record in its own weird way.
It would be nearly a decade before the Puppets got any mainstream recognition, and their single “Backwater,” from their 1994 album “Too High to Die,” was their first (and so far only) song to crack the Billboard Top 200. After their ’90s success, though, the Meat Puppets’ output slowed – they’ve gone on two lengthy hiatuses since 1996 – but they’ve been active since 2006, and their newest album, “Rat Farm,” is their 14th full-length release.
Though they’re revered in certain circles and their influence has increased in importance over the years (Pitchfork even named “Meat Puppets II” one of the best albums of the ’80s), the Puppets have remained relatively under the radar. Maybe that’s for the best, since a major label might suppress their wild experimentation, but there’s no question that more people should know who they are.
You’ve got a chance to familiarize yourself tomorrow night, when the Puppets bring their unique brand of psych rock to the Hop. Who knows – maybe you’ll fall in love the same way Kurt Cobain did all those years ago.