Prairie Pop: Musical Brew

Prairie Pop: March 2010 – With some musicians and bands, I form a kind of matrimonial bond (though because I like so many artists, that makes me a bit of a polygamist). Long-term fandom is like entering into a marital contract–where you’re with them until the bitter end, even if they get a little ugly or annoying. Even when that artist releases yet another mediocre album, a true fan can at least find a couple songs to love, or at least like.

R.E.M., for me, is the archetypal example of this. The first live concert I ever went to was the group’s Life’s Rich Pageant tour in the mid-1980s, and I never stopped buying their albums, even when I knew better. (Last year, it didn’t go so well when I awkwardly explained my musical marriage theory to R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills during an event we were both a part of. He looked at me with a pained smile while I more or less said to him, “Yeah, even when you kind of started sucking, I was there for you.”)

Rarely do bands emerge from the other end of a string of lackluster albums with something worth hearing. The Meat Puppets, another alum of the ’80s pop underground, managed that coup last year on their twelfth album, Sewn Together. Better yet, they surfaced from a long absence from the music scene–and in the case of one member, an extended drug addiction–as a band resurrected. When I saw the Meat Puppets in the 1980s, I remember being awed by guitarist Curt Kirkwood and bassist Cris Kirkwood’s improvisatory playfulness and technical skillz (and this is coming from someone who finds virtuosity-for-virtuosity’s sake tiresome).

Even though the Meat Puppets began in the early 1980s playing fast, short punk songs, the group rapidly evolved into something quite different, and unique. Their instrumental prowess set them apart from others in the American post-punk scene, and their off-kilter, dissonant harmonies truly made them one of a kind. Imagine ZZ Top’s southwestern stomp ‘n’ romp combined with the interlocking spider-webbed lead guitar leads of Jerry Garcia, the rough-hewn country vocals of the Louvin Brothers, the stop-on-a-dime dynamics of their SST labelmates the Minutemen, and the punk irreverence early Black Flag (also signed to SST Records).

However, in the 1990s, after a fluke MTV hit, “Backwater,” the Meat Puppets’ arena ambitions muted the elements that made them so unique. Last year at the Mill they redeemed themselves by playing one of the most shit-hot-tastic shows I’ve seen in many moons (I should also give props to Samuel Locke Ward’s opening performance, which perfectly set the tone). On Friday, April 2, they return to the Mill, with Ward as the opener, as part of the Mission Creek Festival. Unlike most bands that I’ve stayed married to–through years of diminishing returns–this is one musical relationship that finally paid off in the end.
Kembrew’s other Mission Creek picks

Acid Mothers Temple: With single songs that often break the one-hour mark, this ridiculously prolific Japanese experimental psych-rock band bridges the gap between drone-y minimalism–they’ve covered Terry Riley’s composition In C, for instance–and sludgy rock madness. Not to be missed, on or off drugs.

Bomb Squad: In their first incarnation the Bomb Squad was Public Enemy’s legendary production unit, responsible for such masterpieces as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. In the late 2000s, brothers Hank Shocklee and Keith Shocklee returned as a live musical unit cranking out dubby, skittering electronica that is all high and low frequencies.

Camera Obscura: Kickin’ it wispy style, this Scottish group takes twee-ness to the next level with beautifully catchy songs that continue to ring long after the pause button is pushed.

Cave Singers: Bare-boned and tuneful acoustic songs that descend from a folk music tradition that critic Greil Marcus dubbed “old weird America.”

Grant Hart: The drummer and co-songwriter in Hüsker Dü, yet another great trio signed to SST in the 1980s, Grant Hart recently returned with Hot Wax, his first solo album in a decade. Overshadowed by his former bandmate Bob Mould, Hart’s talents are criminally underrated.

Pocahaunted: Expansive and–yes–haunting psychedelia for the lo-fi crowd, last year’s Island Diamonds was a below-the-radar classic.


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