RED RED MEAT
Bunny Gets Paid (Deluxe Edition) 2CD - Sub Pop
Bunny Gets Paid first hit shelves smack in the middle of the 1990s - a time when the once unpredictable "alternative" sound was congealing into waxy, radio-ready angst and the underground was striking off in weird new directions. Red Red Meat stood at the crossroads, one of a handful of idiosyncratic bands that Sub Pop signed courtesy massive amounts of grunge-boom dollars. Though many of these prickly, peculiar groups later achieved some, often posthumous, renown (Earth, Six Finger Satellite, Zumpano), others (Big Chief) may forever await an appreciative audience. A teenager at the time, I remember thinking only how aggressively odd Red Red Meat sounded, when I infrequently heard one of their songs either played on college radio or over the PA before a concert. The Chicago band's bruising swagger and bleary, blue-collar jams seemed like throwbacks then, a regression from the increasingly esoteric art-punk and clever pop currently in vogue at the time.
This two-disc reissue of the band's third album probably owes its existence to the fact that Red Red Meat's main songwriter, Tim Rutulli, went on to form Califone, a band whose experimentation with folk, pop, and traditional musics has carved it a solid space in the independent rock scene. Though Califone often draws out tones to great length and lets rhythmic and ambient clatter drift through their songs, their footing in the rustic melodies of backwoods America paired with my hazy, late-1990s memories had previously led me to believe that Red Red Meat was the weirder of the pair. Almost immediately upon hearing this expanded version of Bunny Gets Paid, it became clear my impressions needed revision.
Listening to Red Red Meat today, it's impossible not to hear the bulky, aggressive stamp of mid-1990s rock n' roll. It's a distinctive, trapped-in-amber sound, if somewhat maligned - awash in throaty masculinity, it mixed angst and idiosyncrasy with traces of the old hard-rock sound: hedonistic, bluntly powerful, embarrassingly eager to exhibit itself. The songs on Bunny Gets Paid never indulge wholeheartedly in such stuff, but a faint aura hangs over the album like the scent of spilled bong water on a shag carpet. "Chain Chain Chain" opens with that classic signifier of '90s edge: the radiant buzz of a guitar being plugged into an amp. It then launches into a burly, results-oriented workout that features an impressively hooky three-note chorus, a simple melody transformed into a brute force. Cast in this light, it's not surprising to learn that the Smashing Pumpkins song featured on the No Alternative benefit compilation of 1993 ("Glynis," for those keeping score,) was named after a member of Red Red Meat.
"Gauze" takes things in a mellower yet still distinctly late-twentieth century direction, kicking off with a chiming, electric strum and slight drum fill that nakedly telegraph dramatic doin's in the near future, then slows down to let Rutulli mumble abstractly about drugs and landscapes. It soon opens up to a big, action-packed chorus, complete with a tolling keyboard note and rousing backing vocals, their texture slightly dog-eared by distortion. It's the sort of artfully sloppy, post-R.E.M. bravado that will make listeners of a certain type immediately nostalgic for the days when it seemed like U2 was out of date.
These "buzz-bin" moments rarely sound derivative or stilted - rather they're more like populist declarations of intent. The driving tempos and the rush of power chords come cloaked in weird blues rhythms and elastic bits of distortion, rusty stretches of meditation that sound nearly spontaneous, and let it be said, occasionally aimless. The opening track, "Carpet of Horses," a perfectly normal damaged-blues lament (as the more straightforward version on the bonus disc proves), propels itself via a feverish keyboard pulse, adding a disorienting sheen to its back-porch acoustic twang. At their best - and there are plenty of choice moments on this set - Red Red Meat act as smugglers, concealing bizarre avant-garde textures in seemingly innocent rock n' roll.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about listening to Bunny Gets Paid in 2009 is how viable Red Red Meat made the tropes of 1990s alternative rock sound - by using it to beef up their more esoteric, exploratory leanings, they remind us how immediate and visceral it once felt to hear, say, "Even Flow" come blasting out of the radio. Essentially, Red Red Meat turned what could have been a dead end into an entire alternate universe, ready and waiting for the arrival of some new, even more foolhardy pioneer.
By Reed Jackson