Recordings

Meat Puppets
No Joke!
(London)

Immediately after hearing this set's chipper "Taste of the Sun" on the radio for the first time, I button-punched over to an oldies station and caught a blast of the Cyrkle's 1966 hit "Red Rubber Ball." Coincidence? I think not!

Both songs share a peripheral fascination with that fiery orb in the sky, and the mournful emoting by the Kirkwood boys is a dead ringer for the lonesome, glee-club vocals on the Cyrkle single.

And were the Cyrkle still around today, chances are it would shed its Sixties-flavored lyrics ("The morning sun is shining like a red rubber ball") for the kind of macabre material the Kirkwoods tackle on their latest: vampires, eight balls, eyeballs and decapitated heads rolling off tables.

In any case, there's no better time than now to be a Meat Puppet. Hot on the heels of the band's first gold album, Too High to Die, and Kurt Cobain's ringing Unplugged endorsement comes this powerful album, touted by its creators as the band's most spiritual album to date.

While some higher force may indeed be channeling cosmic memorandums through Curt Kirkwood, I'm not sure I want to see the church that's founded on revelations like "try some brain goo picnic pie" and "fried robots are blowing sweet melodies."

Don't let such lyrics fool you: No Joke! is serious business at its outset, as the first three numbers quickly establish a mood of plaintive worthlessness. The album's opener and first single, "Scum," has Curt spotting scum everywhere, even under the stars. "Nothing" finds him waxing philosophical like an incredible shrinking Meat Puppet, invigorated by the notion that he's one big nada, "A hole in this time/In a time full of holes." The album's overcast opening trilogy concludes with the sinister, cello-driven dirge "Head" (which features the aforementioned rolling noggin).

From there on out, the sunny arpeggios rise and shine. The Puppets' fascination with sounding like ZZ Top seems to have finally disappeared, but the band may be working up a new Seventies fixation: Carly Simon! Just try to play "Vampires" and not think about "Anticipation." Betcha can't!

While acts from the Presidents of the United States of America to David Bowie furiously try to manufacture eccentricity in their music, the Meat Puppets' strangeness sounds 100 percent genuine.

The Meats may be a little too preoccupied with the occult and cleansing chemicals under the sink to ever run for public office, but try finding a better role model for slackers than Cris Kirkwood. In the chug-rocker "Cobbler," the ever-ambitious vocalist declares a desire to find, make, grow and steal a new pair of shoes. Later, he atones for his larceny and insists he "pay for things I thought I stole." What parents wouldn't be proud?--Serene Dominic

Meat Puppets are scheduled to perform on Friday, October 27, at Party Gardens, with Toadies. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).

Dance Hall Crashers
Lockjaw
(510)

Don't worry if you haven't had your tetanus booster--the grooves on Lockjaw are far from infectious. In fact, this recording is so sterile, a more accurate title would have been Latex.

Theoretically, the Dance Hall Crashers' pop-glazed punk/ska recipe should yield some tasty listening. Instead, what slid off the assembly line is a sorry Go-Go's spin-off slathered in Factory 2-U bubblegum harmonies. What was Jerry Finn--the man behind Rancid and Green Day--thinking when he signed on to produce this bargain-bin yawner?

Not surprisingly, the most successful cut on Lockjaw is "Pictures," a charity track from Rancid's Tim Armstrong. And on "Flyin'," vocalists Elyse Rogers and Karina Dnik have the good sense to swap their usual tight, glossy harmonies for a brief bout of free-spirited, soulful singing.

The rest of this recording is a boring blur of songs that all sound the same, the same, the same. Lyrically, the Crashers probe an impressive list of topics, from greasy record execs ("Queen for a Day") to asshole boyfriends ("Enough"). Unfortunately, the words do little justice to their weighty subjects. Check out this excerpt from "Day Job": "Sometimes the days seem so long/I wish my boss hadn't taken my bong." Message to DHC: Whatever that day job may be, better not quit it.--Leigh Silverman

Nature
Nature
(Zoo)

The curiously ill-named Nature is a decidedly unnatural act. The four-piece took root in the pretentious potting soil of L.A.'s warehouse dance/art scene, and the resulting melodramatic industrial angst huffs and thumps with enough urban paranoia to keep a Nine Inch Nails fan in clover.

Nature's way is to put a gun to your head and ask you to dance. The album begins with a hammer-and-Nails take on "You Only Live Twice." Nature roughs up the James Bond theme song by stapling extra-smarmy vocals around looped percussion samples.

A similar techno touch and preoccupation with trash-pop culture are evident on the next cut, "Z-Man's Party," which includes spoken samples from Sixties sleaze flicks alongside a neo-rap beat. Lead singer Brian Threatt gives an affected vocal treatment to lyrics like "Live this Jackie Chan love dream with us."

About midway through the disc, Nature's relentless assault on subtlety starts to take its toll. That's too bad, as the mental exhaustion puts a damper on genuinely entertaining songs like "Cometh," where apocalyptic scenarios are rendered comical by Zappa-esque meter stops and the warning that "when all the hens are hatchin' double-headed chicks," it's time to start keeping an eye out for the antichrist.

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