Sampled by Public Enemy, name-checked by the Beastie Boys, covered by Primus, joined by Dr. John and Paul McCartney, there has rarely been a group that so defined a single town's sound the way the Meters did in the late '60s and through the '70s. For a long time, a time you might not remember, the Meters were N'awlins: Cabbage Alley and Look-Ka Py Py and Cissy Strut and all those great records, any of which are a worthy addition to your collection. The tracks on Kickback, which isn't quite the "Lost Meters Album" the packaging sticker claims it to be, were recorded during the mid-'70s sessions which yielded Fire on the Bayou and Trick Bag. Thus what we've got here are some rarities, outtakes, alternate versions, covers and the like from a clearly focused period, rather than a true "unreleased" record.
But if you're thinking "grab bag," hold it right there. Those two records, released on Reprise in 1975 and 1976, represented a huge stylistic change for the Meters, who were moving from knock-down funk instrumentalists to an equally powerful vocal funk band. Cyril Neville, who contributes most of the vocals on Kickback, was a loose and intuitive singer whose delivery sounded sewn into the music. When the Meters plunged ahead into vocal-and-instrument territory, they lost none of their muscle or groove, and the cuts on Kickback, far from being studio dross, actually boast a much more versatile feel than the canonical albums. Some of this stuff is familiar, like their cover of "Honky Tonk Woman," which appeared in a shorter version on Trick Bag. But other tracks are downright revelatory, like their covers of Neil Young's "Down by the River" and Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With." (Yes, they work. Like a mother, they work. I promise, you will never hear "Down by the River" the same way again.)
And the lesser-known songs are just as arresting. The Meters always had a surreal edge to their music (titles like "Look-Ka Py Py" and "Hey Pocky-a-Way" should clue us in), and they swing that way on the short, playful "He Bite Me," the burning "Keep on Marching (Funky Soldier)" and the extended bass workout "All I Do Everyday." But after hours, when the lights went down, they could turn out sweet numbers like "What More Can I Do" -- which is simply perfect, a plaintive, just-to-prove-I-love-you Isley Brothers kind of perfect -- and the head-nodding bliss to be found in the ringing Art Neville and George Porter-penned "Easy (Trip)."
The lineup for these recordings was arguably the strongest the Meters ever had: Art and Cyril Neville, George Porter Jr., Leo Nocentelli and Joseph "Zig" Modeliste count off the numbers like it was a holy quest, not a job. This eclectic collection of originals and often-surprising covers proves, above all, that -- to paraphrase another infamous Soul Brother -- whatever the Meters played, it had to be funky.