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Music

Blitzen Trapper and the Meat Puppets

Fabulous bands with funny names

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Given the fact that “country” has been used as a descriptor with regard to two bands with shows happening on back-to-back nights—Nov. 21 and 22—at the Wild Buffalo, you would think those bands would have some things in common.

And they do have things in common. Two things, to be exact. 1. Both share a penchant for random band names. 2. Neither particularly sounds like a country band.

The bands in question are Blitzen Trapper and the Meat Puppets, respectively, and when it comes right down to it, they couldn’t be more different.

First up is Blitzen Trapper, who will make a return trip to Bellingham on Thurs., Nov. 21. Of the two bands, Blitzen Trapper are the fresh-faced youngsters, having been together just shy of a decade and a half. When considered against the lifespan of the average band, the Portland-based have been making music for an impressive number of years, but when compared to the 30-plus years (with a somewhat necessary hiatus near the middle) the Meat Puppets have under their collective belt, Blitzen Trapper is just getting started.

And Blitzen Trapper has made productive use of its dozen-plus years of existence, releasing seven full-length albums, a handful of EPs and the occasional 7 inch here and there just to keep things interesting. It would seem this is a band with a lot to say—and they want to say it in a whole bunch of different ways.

By and large, Blitzen Trapper is a band critics like. Frontman Eric Earley is a deft songwriter, the band was lucky enough to nab a Sub Pop deal and be rolled into that label’s engineering of a neo-folk musical resurgence, several of them have been known to grow beards and they wear a lot of natural fibers. In other words, they possess many of the ingredients for modern musical success.

But if there’s one criticism that’s leveled time and again at this band, it’s that beyond the broad strokes, this band seems to be unable to nail down what, exactly, they’re trying to sound like. From bluegrass and honky tonk to a decidedly West Coast brand of rock ’n’ roll to dabbling in prog to settling on something that owes a debt to Southern rock, this band has tried it all. And while critics may occasionally fault them for not being able to settle on a sound, most do so as a precursor for admitting that their lack of musical monogamy generally yields favorable results. Unabashedly following one’s musical whims is not an experiment that pays off for every band, but Blitzen Trapper makes it work, time and again.

Critics are also, generally speaking, fairly kind to the Meat Puppets, but if there’s a piece of criticism that has dogged them during their three decades of life, it’s that they don’t stray far enough from their musical center, preferring instead to remain firmly in their comfort zone of fuzzy, laid-back but inventive alternative rock with decidedly ’90s spin. And sure, that argument has some merit, but when your signature sound has influenced the likes of Soundgarden, Dinosaur Jr, Sebadoh, Pavement, and more, a case can also be made that what you have not yet broken probably does not require fixing.

Of course, from now until the end of time—at least in this neck of the woods—the Meat Puppets will be known as the band that so memorably shared the stage with Nirvana during that band’s now-iconic 1993 MTV Unplugged performance. And while that entire performance is its own musical moment in time, the two songs that stole the show—“Plateau” and “Lake of Fire”—were Meat Puppets tracks.

However, Kurt Cobain and the brothers Kirkwood (Curt and Cris, the founders and brain trust of the Meat Puppets) had more in common than just a musical affinity, they also shared a monstrous appetite for drugs. Cobain’s struggles, which likely contributed to his 1994 suicide, are well-documented, Cris Kirkwood’s are less known. After a struggle with addiction that spanned years, and eventually led to Cris being shot and jailed, and the band breaking up for a time, Cris got clean and the Kirkwoods got the band back together in 2006. They’ve been playing, touring and recording ever since.

Although the two bands’ tours will keep them in close geographical proximity to one another during the coming days, there’s no way of knowing whether Blitzen Trapper and the Meat Puppets are aware of each other. But given the former’s knack for being all over the musical map while the latter remains steadfastly rooted, I’m going to choose to believe there’s some overlap in there somewhere.

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