Free-range and Carefree
After the more production-heavy graces of Lollipop, the Meat Puppets’ brothers Kirkwood reel it in a bit for their fourteenth studio effort, Rat Farm, an often rustic folk–country set completely assured in its off-beat humor and subdued delivery. The guitars of Curt and recent addition Elmo—Curt’s son, incidentally—only rarely spit with electric force (“One More Drop,” “Original One”), finding their mean, instead, somewhere between jangle-pop sincerity and herbed-up hippie skronk. The songs’ copacetic flow and outdoorsy lyrics induce a certain carefree emotion: This is music for the scenic route—patient as it is humorous and winding around at the clip of an old VW Bus.
“Down,” for instance, lilts with warn-in vocals and a dirty-boots riff. “Backdoor swingin’ open from the yard / Stern, ol’ boys carrying a sword,” sings Curt, painting a Norman Rockwell-like scene. “Chasing cats and rabbits in / Bushes and the garbage bins,” he finishes, “Chasing cats and rabbits in the yard.” Bassist brother Cris walks a line with tiptoeing aplomb as big cowboy chords bloom like desert flowers. This is the Puppets going “full Mellencamp,” or as close as we’re going to get—and you know what? From a band with hardcore, prog- and acid-rock roots, it suits ’em just fine.
In fact, Rat Farm makes such a convincing honest-to-goodness folk album, the group’s occasional tweaks to “weird it up”—though successful in the past and indeed vital to the classic Puppets sound—almost feel vestigial in this case. It’s as if 85 per cent of the record is in the Tom Petty strike zone and, here and there, you get some Puppet curveballs. (The self-titled opener’s reggae verse springs to mind, as well as the tipsy, carnival chorus of “Leave Your Head Alone.”) Despite these few passages, however, the rest plays downright sincere. “Sometimes Blue” hops along with aw-shucks simplicity while “You Don’t Know” reels with a kind of singer-songwriter depth.
At the same time, this is by no means a Jackson Browne record—though the breezy majesty of “Time and Money” may suggest otherwise. This is instead by the same guys who banged out the sticky grunge of ’90s hit “Backwater,” only this time, of course, they’ve tamed their ADHD just enough to unleash a no-fuss country–rock album that not only finds strength in narrowing its focus, but, somehow in doing so, bolsters and clarifies the Meat Puppets’ identity as a band. How’s that for a day’s work on the Rat Farm?