Red Red Meat: There’s a Star Above the Manger Tonight

Chicago’s Red Red Meat, led by Tim Rutili and including members he would carry on into his next band, Califone, were active in the fringes of alternative rock throughout the 1990s. They were one of the few groups that did something different with the basic tools of what was then called grunge. Red Red Meat were on Sub Pop and they toured with hometown friends Smashing Pumpkins, but they were one of those indie bands that never really had a chance at the big time. They were too insular, too weird, they didn’t look very interesting on camera. But they made four fine records and the last of these, 1997’s There’s a Star Above the Manger Tonight, has been lovingly reissued.

This wasn’t Red Red Meat’s best record—that honor goes to its predecessor, 1995’s Bunny Gets Paid, which gets over purely on the strength of its songwriting. Almost every cut on Bunny still sounds like a bent rock classic. Star Above the Manger, on the other hand, is an album about sound, the place where Red Red Meat fully discovered the studio-as-instrument. One of the reasons the music press loved so much of ’90s alternative rock is because it was heard as moving “back to the basics”: loud guitars, heavy drums, and a singer howling in torment. From one angle, it was a conservative movement. Red Red Meat provided an interesting twist on this template with an intent focus on technology. Based in Chicago in the ’90s, Red Red Meat were well aware of what bands in what would eventually come to be called post-rock were doing. The ideas of manipulating a gnarly guitar riff with a computer and snapping beats to a grid were not out of the question. All of those ideas came into full flower on Star Above the Manger. For as much crunchy, blues-based riffing as is going on here, Star feels like it’s happening inside of a computer. The band themselves were drawing inspiration from Teo Macero’s work with Miles Davis, seeing how fragments of live jamming could be altered and re-edited into something new. The result is an album that, even now, 18 years later, still sounds remarkably fresh and like little else.

The ultra-stiff drums on “Chinese Balls” are one example among many of what makes this record unusual: on one level, it sounds like a Stones-y rock song, with trebly chords and slide guitar, but the rhythmic undercurrent is pure Man-Machine, even though the individual drum hits sound “live.” The title track smashes old against new in a different but still intriguing way, with a violin and banjo that are all pinched midrange, bringing to mind the thin response of a 78 that might wind up on The Anthology of American Folk Music. But the layered voices and particulars of the mix sound thoroughly contemporary, with small details that would have never occurred to someone hearing music before the advent of multi-track. On “Second Hand Sea”, one of the most beautiful ballads Tim Rutili has written, the banjo is midrange-heavy and in an unusual tuning, sounding more like a Chinese qinqin, and it traces the delicate melody as bassy throbs of percussion crash like waves on a shore, while the instrumental “Paul Pachal” moves from tense surges of guitar and malleted drums to something approaching pure noise music. You can never quite tell where you are inside this album—depression-era blues, early-’70s arena rock, downtown post-punk, early laptop era—and all the sounds and techniques swirl together, resulting in something beautifully disorienting.

For the reissue, boutique label Jealous Butcher have commissioned a new cover by John Herndon of Tortoise, pressed the records on bright orange vinyl, and have also included a variation on the song-specific artwork (also by Herndon) included with the original release. The latter is an especially nice touch, as the projects of Red Red Meat and their various offshoots always had the aura of the found object, that feeling when you confront something interesting without all the necessary context and figure out the story by working backwards. The bonus tracks, the usual assortment of outtakes, flesh out the story, and demonstrate that this was indeed a fertile period of exploration for the band. The highlight among them is the version of “Welcome Christmas”, the B-side on the title track’s 7”. It’s a version of the song sung in Whoville during the climactic scene of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Between this cover and the one of “There’s Always Tomorrow”, from “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”, off Bunny, Red Red Meat out themselves as a band with a sentimental streak about the holiday season, not unlike that of fellow travelers the Flaming Lips, another group that did something strange and compelling within the confines of ’90s alt rock. Red Red Meat never had a chance to be anywhere near that huge and probably would have blown it if they had, but their records hold up as well as any of the bands they were lumped with.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork