Screaming Trees: Dust

0000526870_500It’s conventional wisdom that the four year break between Sweet Oblivion and this album is what prevented Screaming Trees from being big stars; in other words, they didn’t capitalize on the Seattle boom of the early 90’s. And sure, no output from 1993-1995 surely hurt them. But just as big a factor, I have to think, is that this album just isn’t that good.

Of course the two can’t be teased apart all that easily. The band folded after this record, and it seems likely to me that they were headed down the breakup path during its recording and release. They’ve got a new producer on this album in George Drakoulias, and the sound is just…different. It’s not as muddy as it was when I was complaining about it on their indie albums, but Lanegan’s voice is higher, even falsetto in some places, and the guitar sound is too clean and radio-friendly. The guitar is also missing the hooks. So without the amazing guitar melodies and Lanegan’s voice, is it even really Screaming Trees?

It’s not like the band lost its sense of aesthetics during this time. In 1994 Lanegan released the excellent Whiskey And The Holy Ghost, and of course he’s gone on to have an incredible career that’s kind of even exceeded that of his original band.

So they ended up with an album that’s a bit aimless. It’s not quite clear what they’re going for, but you can be pretty sure they didn’t hit it. There are a few good tracks on here, particularly on the back half of the disc, but that half also features the god awful, outrageously dull “Traveler.” I’m no fan of the opener, “Halo Of Ashes,” either, and when I hear the opening riff to that song I have to remind myself that some good songs are coming up in order to hang on through it.

Even though the last two songs are very good, in particular “Gospel Plow,” I think in my mind the band will always have ended at “Julie Paradise,” going out on top.

Rating:
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– “Sworn And Broken,” “Dime Western,” “Gospel Plow”
– “All I Know,” “Look At You,” “Dying Days,” “Witness”
– “Halo Of Ashes,” “Make My Mind,” “Traveler”
Filed Between: Screaming Trees’ Sweet Oblivion and Screwed Soundtrack
Song Notes: After the jump
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Screaming Trees: Sweet Oblivion

Just a ridiculously good album…nearly perfect. One of the rare occasions where a band’s best-known album is its best.  And one of the even rarer instances where a band’s best-known song (“Nearly Lost You,” which also appeared on the Singles soundtrack) may actually be its best. Just a great album, unfortunately still overlooked relative to its worth, one of the pillars of Peak Grunge. Beautiful vocal melodies, awesome guitar leads that cut through everything, great sound.

Rating:
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– “Shadow Of The Season,” “Nearly Lost You,” “Dollar Bill,” “More Or Less,” “Butterfly,” “The Secret Kind,” “Winter Song,” “Troubled Times,” “No One Knows,” “Julie Paradise”
– “For Celebrations Past”
Filed Between: Screaming Trees’ Uncle Anesthesia and Dust
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Screaming Trees: Uncle Anesthesia


This is what a major label debut is supposed to sound like. So much bigger and grown up, but not watered down and toothless. It’s a band coming through the indie ranks breaking out at just the right time, soul intact, fully-formed and unique; Continue reading

Screaming Trees: Something About Today

This EP is Screaming Trees’ major label debut (and kind of the debut of Mark Lanegan’s voice as it would come to be known). The EP served as a bit of a preview for their Uncle Anesthesia album. I’ve had this since I don’t know when, and I only just realized right now that only two of these four songs (the best two, “Uncle Anesthesia” and “Ocean Of Confusion”) actually appeared on that album. I thought it was a strict subset.

Anyway, the story of this is pretty simple. It’s some good songs mixed with inexcusably bad, muffled sound. The sound thing can be mitigated partially by turning the volume up, which exposes a lot more. But to listen at a reasonable volume is to be frustrated by the veil behind which the music is hidden. It’s like the musical equivalent of talking to a low-talker. I say inexcusably because this was 1990, a golden era of good-sounding rock. And it’s got the excellent Terry Date listed as co-producer (along with Soundgarden’s lead singer Chris Cornell and Screaming Trees themselves), lending even more bafflement to this issue.

A couple of really good songs, though, and “Something About Today (Numb Inversion Version)” is a cool look into what the band could do when it wanted to stretch outside of the standard guits and drums rock genre. If not for the sound problems, I would probably give this a full four clowns.

Rating:
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– “Uncle Anesthesia,” “Ocean Of Confusion”
– “Who Lies In Darkness,” “Something About Today (Numb Inversion Version)”
Filed Between: Screaming Trees’ Buzz Factory and Uncle Anesthesia
Song Notes: After the jump
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Screaming Trees: Even If And Especially When

Even If And Especially WhenGood songs, bad sound (all caveats about my current equipment apply, as always), and a bit of the same tempo/same key problem add up to a pretty good album–one that doesn’t bother me, has some songs I really like, but I don’t really want to listen to.

Clairvoyance got a better review, but these two albums are really similar in a lot of ways. It’s a mixed bag of songs with a few rising above the crowd. (“Cold Rain” is probably the best thing they’ve done until this point, though “Other Days And Different Planets” gives it a run for its money.) There’s lousy sound. Mark Lanegan’s still looking for what his voice would be. On the other hand, drummer Mark Pickerel is much improved and Gary Lee Conner isn’t standing out as much, in part due to the muddiness of the sound. And they’re not so strongly reminiscent of The Doors as they were on this album’s predecessor.

The bad sound is of a bizarre sort. There’s a garden variety thinness that’s of the time, but there’s also this aberrant sound plague all over the place. Both “Transfiguration” and “The Pathway” feature instruments completely and suddenly dropping out. “Back Together” has one amazingly loud cymbal crash in the right channel amidst a hundred more normalized others throughout the song.

“Aberrant” can also describe one of my favorite moments on the disc. In “In The Forest,” Lanegan sings “…like a cat, say meooooow,” and the meow is high, sustained, and, well, it’s like a meow. It’s a lovely and completely unexpected twist that never fails to make me meow when I hear it. I think my office mate thinks I’m becoming a cat.

I remember these songs sounding better when I heard half of them on the SST Anthology where I first encountered them. I’m not sure if they got remastered for that release or not, but it would have been unusual for SST in 1991 to do something like that, especially at that time. Anyway, this album is fine, just calling out for a remaster.

Rating:
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– “Straight Out To Any Place,” “Cold Rain,” “Other Days And Different Planets,” “In The Forest”
– “Transfiguration,” “World Painted,” “Don’t Look Down,” “Girl Behind The Mask,” “Flying,” “The Pathway,” “You Know Where It’s At,” “Back Together”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Screaming Trees: Clairvoyance

Screaming Trees’ first full-length album, their only release on Velvetone, was destined for a three-clown review, but it benefits from my busy schedule. I couldn’t find the time to sit down and hammer out the review so just kept listening to it and a lot more of the songs became a lot more fun to listen to.

So let’s start with my initial assessment, which really hasn’t changed. This is a solid disc with no bad songs on it. A couple of songs, “The Turning,” which was also on Other Worlds, and “Standing On The Edge,” rise above the crowd, but for the most part it’s an even listen throughout. It suffers from muffled, thin sound (though, to be fair, I’m listening on a new device (Lumia 920), and I’m pretty unhappy with its sound in general) and what I feel is poor drumming from original drummer Mark Pickerel. The band feels very rushed and the tempi are uneven. There’s no groove that they can settle in to.

Mark Lanegan’s voice has gotten rougher since Other Worlds, but he still hasn’t settled into what it will be. It feels like he’s experimenting with what he wants to do with it. Guitarist Gary Lee Conner has the clearest vision of what he wants to do, as well as the best chops, though those two things tend to go hand in hand. Even before I warmed up to the rest of the album I enjoyed his melodies and appreciated them being so forward in the mix.

The band as a whole still hasn’t found their later style yet, either. Again, their strengths lie in writing good melodies, but you don’t really get any sense of where it’s going to end up. On this album I heard a very strong influence of The Doors, something I’ve never heard on their other stuff (though I have a feeling I will from here on out). Lanegan definitely goes Jim Morrison in a few places, in particular on “Standing On The Edge” and the Doors-esque titled “Strange Out Here,” and the way they use the keys to kick off “You Tell Me All These Things” is reminiscent of “Light My Fire.”

So what changed to earn this album another half-clown? Just letting it run, spending more time with it, I started to differentiate the songs in the middle part of the album. And when the melodies weren’t there to carry a song, I started to appreciate that they were rocking pretty hard. And once I picked out Pickerel as the weak link in my experience, I was able to focus on what the Conner brothers were able to pull off in spite of his performance.

I’m not sure this album or Other Worlds would have been enough to grab my attention on their own, but getting to them via the band’s later stuff has been an enjoyable experience.

Rating:

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– “Orange Airplane,” “Standing On The Edge,” “Lonely Girl,” “The Turning,” “Clairvoyance”
– “You Tell Me All These Things,” “Forever,” “Seeing And Believing,” “I See Stars,” “Strange Out Here”
Song Notes: After the jump
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Screaming Trees: Other Worlds

otherworlds On Screaming Trees’ debut EP, there is little sign of the band that would come or of the “Seattle sound” of the early 90’s. That’s not that surprising given that this is from 1985(!) or that the band is really from Ellensburg, a college town over one hundred miles east on I-90, on the other side of the mountains. But it is striking in that the other bands from that era–Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden–all had at least some parts of their sound in their very early stuff. Mudhoney (nee Green River) and Alice In Chains in particular had their sound figured out and nailed down very early

With Other Worlds, though, the only real similarity is smartly written, guitar-driven pop songs. It’s more like hippie dippie psychedlia poppy stuff than grunge. Even Mark Lanegan’s voice, which would go on to become, more than anything, the band’s calling card, is nascent here. Instead of the dark, brooding bass, it’s more of a thin, reedy, though competent, tenor.

I like every one of these songs. I wouldn’t skip past a single one. Not one really jumps out at you, though, and that’s in no small part due to the thin, distant sound quality. Great melodies, tightly packed hooks, and no screwing around. It’s an auspicious beginning for one of my favorite bands.

Rating:
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– “Like I Said,” “Pictures In My Mind,” “The Turning,” “Other Worlds,” “Barriers,” “Now Your Mind Is Next To Mine”
Song Notes: After the jump
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