One of the most underappreciated rock bands of the ’80s, the Meat Puppets released two brilliant country-punk amalgams, 1984’s Meat Puppets II and the following year’s Up on the Sun.
Like the Replacements albums of the same era, these opuses achieved a remarkable, almost un-punk sincerity through equal parts juvenilia, sprawl and pure noise. Unlike the Replacements, the Meat Puppets went on to make a lengthy career out of rock ’n roll by changing their sound once every four albums or so.
Live in Montana captures the tail end of the country-punk phase (thankfully, before the band’s ZZ Top and modern rock phases) in two 1988 concerts, and it starts off in rip-roaring fashion. “Touchdown King,” “Automatic Mojo” and “Liquified” thrash exemplarily, with guitarist Curt Kirkwood launching into some blistering leads while the rhythm section chugs forcefully. Take this stuff with the beloved “Plateau” and “Lake of Fire,” two splendid half-apocalyptic ruminations from II, and you’ve got yourself a fab EP. Problem is, the Meat Puppets were unlike the Replacements in two more ways: 1) Kirkwood forces his voice into uncomfortable places where Paul Westerberg just let his rasp and 2) the Meat Puppets didn’t get stupid good when they were drunk; they just got stupid. The covers that comprise Montana’s last three tracks are just plain stultifying, trading in the Puppets’ usual dusty earthiness for jokey insipidity.
Ben Lee: Breathing Tornados 5/10
At least the Meat Puppets were never prodigal. Ben Lee’s been writing precocious stuff since he was a wee lad fronting Noise Addict and, now that he’s turned 20, he’s managed the tricky feat of achieving hipster status (a deal with Grand Royal, a guest appearance on his new album from Harmony Korine) through cuteness. And he’s even dating Claire Danes! Could the guy who once sang a song about wanting to be Evan Dando actually be turning into him before our very eyes?
Maybe, but he might want to consider making an album as good as Come on Feel the Lemonheads first. His new one, Breathing Tornados [sic], sure as hell ain’t it. I’m willing to ignore the really ugly cover art, but I’m not interested in sitting through Ben Lee’s premature mid-life crisis. Breathing Tornados has a few catchy half-songs (“Cigarettes Will Kill You,” “Nothing Much Happens”) and a few fairly clever half-observations, but it pads them all with wan production that’s caught halfway between the lo-fi spontaneity of his last album and the hi-fi professionalism he seems to be gearing up for. Only “Ship My Body Home” has any authority to it; the rest of the album is competent but forgettable. Evan Dando may have been a poseur, but at least he didn’t wallow in a stasis of his own creation.
Rondelles: Fiction Romance Fast Machines 7/10
The uncomfortable prodigal youths of tomorrow might just be the Rondelles, a gleeful all-female punk outfit whose 11-song debut album, Fiction Romances Fast Machines, clocks in at just over 23 minutes. The title of the disc is a Buzzcocks tribute, but the sound owes just as much to ’60s girl groups and early ’80s new wave as it does to “Orgasm Addict.” Especially in comparison to Lee, the Rondelles seem to have a tendency to underwrite their songs, hoping to get by on pure enthusiasm. But the album’s high points prove that you don’t need even the faintest sense of vocal harmony to make a catchy song: “Mission: Irresistible,” “Do it for Me” and the sublime “He’s Outta Sight” get by on totally bitchin’ keyboard lines and chugging guitar alone; more power to ’em. Plus, I get more out of their junior varsity philosophizing â€“ “fiction romances, fast machines/get yourself in a magazine;” “he’s the square on the math team. . .I’m gonna get him any way I can” â€“ than I do out of Ben Lee.
Rentals: Seven More Minutes 5/10
Now that her certifiably fun Moog-loving day job in That Dog is out of the way, Petra Hayden seems to have lost the ability to have a good time. Not only does she co-write a few tunes on Breathing Tornados, but she turns up on the Rentals’ surprisingly unexciting Seven More Minutes. The band’s curiously titled debut Return of the Rentals raised some eyebrows with its two monstrously winsome singles, “Friends of P” and “Waiting,” which Seven More Minutes doesn’t even come close to replicating. A boatload of guest stars â€“ Hayden, Damon Albarn of Blur, Miki Berenyi of Lush, Donna Matthews of Elastica and more â€“ ensures that the album is discontinuous; none of them do anything to make it enjoyable.
The album provides a little bit of crunch (“Getting By,” “Big Daddy C.”), too much atmospheric monotony (“Say Goodbye Forever,” “Overlee”), way too much gimmick (especially on “The Cruise,” which tosses out as many gratuitous vocal tics as “Pretty Fly for a White Guy”), and not enough buoyant songs, though “Barcelona,” “Keep Sleeping” and “Big Daddy C.” (give the Rentals credit: they’re good with initials) are suitably boppy. I guess it’s all some sort of new wave thing, goofy male vocals straight from “She Blinded Me with Science,” goofy female vocals from “Video Killed the Radio Star,” but even the studio hacks behind those songs were less deliberate than the Rentals sound here.
Tobin Sprout: Let’s Welcome the Circus People 5/10
Deliberate is about the last adjective I’d use to describe Guided by Voices, but I’m beginning to think differently about GbV alum Tobin Sprout’s solo career. With 1997’s sturdy, often pretty Moonflower Plastic virtually ignored, Sprout seems to have hit upon a brilliant strategy to get that album the respect it deserves: releasing a boring dud as its follow-up! Truth be told, Let’s Welcome the Circus People isn’t that bad; it just doesn’t go out of its way to do anything very good. Not a single song on the album even tries to recapture the propulsive pop of his GbV standards like “Little Whirl” or “Straw Dogs.” Worse yet, none go for the understated warmth of Moonflower’s piano-and-vocal title track. The result is a bunch of middling, occasionally reasonably attractive, down-tempo guitar strums, the kind of stuff Sprout could probably write in his sleep. A few tunes peek out from the rest (“And So on,” “Maid to Order”), but not enough to justify songs named “Vertical Insect (the Lights Are on)” and “Lucifer’s Flaming Hour.” The finest joke, it seems, is upon him.