Meat Puppets: Meat Puppets II (1984)
This one was something of a shock when I first heard it. Their debut album was noisy hardcore/cowpunk, a blaze of blistering guitars and off-key shouting and, frankly, I couldn't stand it. (Still can't.) So it was a surprise when the follow-up almost entirely dropped the punk energy and roughness and instead offered lower key roots rock, a jangly guitar sound reminiscent of other college radio bands of the era blended with middle-America/Western roots (the band hails from Arizona), but still tethered to a post-punk rawness. To be sure, singer/guitarist/songwriter Curt Kirkwood was nobody's idea of a slick vocalist, coming across like Neil Young after too many quaaludes and not exactly wedded to any particular key (interestingly, he's grown far more polished over time, and more recent efforts by the band, which are surprisingly great -- this year's Dusty Notes is some of their best work to date -- show Kirkwood with a more weathered but warmer vocal style not far removed from Jeff Tweedy).
The album kicks off with the rollicking "Split Myself In Two," a loud/fast romp suggesting the band hasn't moved far beyond the debut (though it's got a far better hook than anything on the first album, and is a pretty freakin' great blast of askew punk) -- but aside from the soundalike "New Gods," the rest of the album is a dramatic departure. "Magic Toy Missing" is a bouncy, bluegrassy instrumental (and, later on, "I'm A Mindless Idiot" provides a lovely, jangly backwoods instrumental that would be perfect on an indie film soundtrack, stacking up nicely alongside Uncle Tupelo's "Sandusky"). Then you get into a run of fascinating vocal tracks -- the fast-paced but Americana-tinged "Lost," the folky "Plateau" and "Climbing" -- that again call to mind 70s Neil Young, though again one's enjoyment of the songs will turn on one's tolerance for Kirkwood's vocals.
I think the follow-up, 1985's Up On The Sun, is the better album, taking the jangly Americana of II and further boosting it with some great pop hooks (with Kirkwood's guitar virtuosity taking a huge leap) and eliminating most of the noisy edge held over from the debut. But this album was such an unexpected delight when I first heard it that I feel some sentimentality towards it. If you're new to the band, Sun is the better starting point (or perhaps the more mainstream-adjacent, Creedence-like rocking Huevos from '87), but this one is still pretty damn cool. (And, again, check out Dusty Notes, one of my favorite albums of 2019, a far more commercial-sounding yet still wholly distinctive piece of Southwestern sunshine.)
Here's an audio rip of "Climbing":