Of all the Eighties bands that took hardcore punk as their launching pad, no one got further (or weirder) faster than guitar-twisting stoner gods the Meat Puppets. Even when the Arizona trio was recording for Black Flag’s record label and thrashing out one-minute songs at atomic speed, their music always had a glazed sense of amiably demented wonder. It’s a sound that grew deeper and druggier as they explored Sun Belt sprawl on their psychedelic 1984 masterwork II and the post-punk pastoralism of 1985’s insanely idyllic Up on the Sun. The Meat Puppets eventually wandered their way into alt-rock elder statesman status, cemented by an appearance in late 1993 on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged, where their classics “Lake of Fire” and “Plateau” sounded every bit as creepy as Kurt Cobain’s haunted rendering of Lead Belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”
The band quickly displayed their more contented side with the laidback hard-rock choogle of “Backwater,” a radio hit in the spring of 1994. That same easygoing spirit is all over their 15th album, Dusty Notes, which is also the first recorded in 25 years by the band’s original lineup of guitarist Curt Kirkwood, his bass-playing brother Cris and drummer Derrick Bostrom. These musicians always excelled in bending tradition — see their epochal 1982 stoner-barf cover of Sons of Pioneers’ “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” — and their sense of roots here is often quite reverent, expressed most generously in a version of Don Gibson’s “Sea of Heartbreak,” full of lovingly plunked honky tonk pianos and sweet, grizzled harmonizing. The happily loping title track celebrates the power of music and features a Mariachi horn part, while “On” sounds like Robert Hunter writing a tune for George Jones. The band at times seems to be harkening back to its own history, as well: The banjo-banging “Nine Pins” suggests an older, wiser, more satisfied version of the II gem “Lost,” where Curt Kirkwood turned the line “I’m gettin’ tired of livin’ Nixon’s mess” into Eighties indie-rock’s greatest bumper-sticker slogan.
Dusty Notes isn’t without one or two overly screwy misfires, like the Traffic-gone-prog-metal mess “Vampyr’s Winged Fantasy.” But the balance of strangeness and comfort remains the hallmark of their vision. “The Great Awakening” is an acid-Skynyrd dreamweave about the devil, Dionysus and breaking into wonderland that takes its name from the Puritan religious revival that rocked the New England countryside during the 1740s — in other words, our nation’s first big outdoor festival. For these guys, America hasn’t killed all its mysteries just yet.