Ten Commandos: Ten Commandos


Wouldn’t it be awesome if Alain Johannes got together with Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron of Soundgarden? You don’t have to wonder, because it happened and, yes, it is awesome. Dmitri Coats is the second guitarist, and Mark Lanegan joins the group for the first track, because that’s what Mark Lanegan does.

This is basically an Alain Johannes album but with the best drummer he’s ever had. Even guest vocalist Nikki Costa on “Come” sounds an awful lot like Johannes’ late wife and bandmate from Eleven, Natasha Schneider. The songs are moody, in minor keys, and have great, occassionally soaring melodies over interesting harmonies and tricky rhythms.

Honestly, I’m not sure what more there is to say. This is Alain Johannes’ aesthetic through and through. He’s not breaking any new ground for him (save, notably, for the wacky guitar antics by Peter Frampton on “Sketch 9”), but he’s still waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to the new ground he was treading over 20 years ago. It’s heavy, it’s sweet, it’s beautiful. If you ever wished there was another Eleven album, you should definitely check this out.

Mix: “War On The Peace”
Really Like: “You Might Forget,” “Sporthalle,” “Four On The Floor”
“Staring Down The Dust,” “Outermost Sky,” “Come,” “Sketch 9” “Aware,” “Invisibility”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading


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.

– “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.

– “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.

– “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: Buzz Factory

I remember liking this a lot more.

The band’s last “indie” label release, this one was produced by Jack Endino, who produced about a jillion amazing albums, most famously probably Nirvana’s Bleach, which came out the same year as this album.

Like Bleach, this album has some amazing songwriting, always a strength of Screaming Trees, and also like Nirvana’s first album, this one is best listened to loud. The sound is kind of muddy if you listen to it at lower volumes, but when you crank it up it kind of breaks through into a nice fuzzed out raunch.

Lanegan starts to get amazing here. He screws his voice up and down into all kinds of contortions on “Black Sun Morning,” (which is, along with “Smokerings” from Invisible Lantern, the best song they’ve done to this point) in a way I don’t think he’s even done since.

Here’s a tribute to Screaming Trees: Consider that by 1989, a full two years before Nevermind and Ten and three years before people would actually turn on to those albums, these guys were on their fourth album and had matured into an awesome band. I think I even hear some drop-D tuning going on here…the signature sound of what would be called grunge years later. For crying out loud, this was the same year Melvins would release the ridiculously raw and untamed Ozma.

Anyway, a lot of good songs, but not as many great ones as I remember. I remember “Flower Web,” “Where The Twain Shall Meet,” and “End Of The Universe” all being better than I find them now. On the other hand, I don’t remember “Black Sun Morning” being quite this strong and it’s been a real treat to re-discover “Yard Trip #7” and “Subtle Poison.”

– “Where The Twain Shall Meet,” “Black Sun Morning,” “Yard Trip #7,” “End Of The Universe”
– “Windows,” “Too Far Away,” “Subtle Poison,” “Flower Web,” “Wish Bringer,” “Revelation Revolution,” “The Looking Glass Cracked”
Filed Between: Screaming Trees’ Invisible Lantern and Something About Today
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.

– “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