Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Album: Sewn Together
Rating: ******** (8/10)
Seminal cow-punk freaks the Meat Puppets were one of American punk's earliest and most important groups, back in the early 80's glory days of Black Flag's SST label. Though they helped jumpstart the hardcore scene, the Puppets have always been far more relaxed than most of their West Coast peers, drenching their music in country and psychedelia to the point that it's only recognizable as "punk" by its historical context.
A lot has happened since those days, though. The lines between indie and mainstream have blurred and American punk has undergone a disturbing metamorphosis to become "alternative rock." And in this new context, the Puppets seem to have had some trouble getting their footing.
Sewn Together is the second album since Kirkwood brothers Cris and Curt reunited in 2006. Their 2007 release, Rise to Your Knees, hearkened back to the Puppets' best era but fell short of the excitement of their SST records. On Sewn Together, the band takes a different tack. Following a label change (their sixth move in as many albums), the Puppets recorded their most polished, commercialized music to date.
I'm not one to begrudge a band the use of technology out of some false nostalgia, nor am I one to criticize a band for relying heavily on the producer's engineering to shape their sound. But fans of classic Meat Puppets material will likely be disappointed. In addition to the slick production, Sewn Together has toned down both the velocity and the volume of the band's earlier work. Everything is cleaned up and consequently, it's far less in-your-face than the old material.
Now, if this is the band "selling out" and attempting a commercially viable album for once in their careers, I really can't hold it against them. After all, they deserve some fans and some money for all they've contributed to the evolution of rock music. And if this is how they have to get it, so be it. Or maybe it has nothing to do with moving units, maybe they just like the way this sounds. And that's fine too. It's a totally solid album and would be from any band - it just might not appeal to the same crowd as did, say, Meat Puppets II.
And the Puppets haven't lost any of their real strengths either - as always, they boast masterful songwriting, addictive melodies and some stunning lead guitar. "Blanket of Weeds" boasts a brilliant guitar line and well-conceived stops, as well as some cool sonic disintegration at the end. "Sapphire" and "Go To Your Head" waltz through slow 6/8 rhythms, while "I'm Not You" launches into a high-speed two-step (and sounds more like classic Meat Puppets than anything else on the album).
As the album wears on, it becomes slightly less worthy of note. None of the songs clock in under three minutes (compared to their first two albums which had one song between them over the three minute mark). That's not inherently bad, but some of the songs on Sewn Together do drag on too long and end up stagnant. The arrangements are also rather monotonous. There's quite a bit of piano and even some whistling on the album, so there is variety between the songs. But within each track, all the instruments tend to just carry on together right through doing about what they did from the start. This might work with shorter songs, but in the three to five minute range, it's hard not to thirst for something less predictable.
Despite the lack of momentum on some tracks, though, Sewn Together is a great album. Few songwriters can match the Kirkwood brothers and that alone could carry the record. This album may not be the dream of old-school fans, but its more tempered psychedelic country twang will bring a new audience into the fold.