Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Where To Start With… Screaming Trees

They formed in the rural wastelands of Ellensburg, WA. Van and Gary Lee Connor were man-mountain brothers playing in a covers band; Mark Lanegan was a local wild-boy always in trouble with the cops, driving trucks for the Connor family’s repo business. When Lanegan took the microphone Screaming Trees were born, touring the US and recording albums of psychedelic proto-grunge for SST Records, penned mostly by drug-abstaining Gary Lee (Lanegan had been selling drugs for some years by this point). They signed to Epic at the start of the 90s, their Lanegan-penned ‘Sweet Oblivion’ - a set of anguished country and blues-influenced classic rock - the most potent and profound album of the Grunge explosion. But deserved success never arrived for this fractious band, and the tempestuous, Josh Homme-aided tour for the majestic ‘Dust’ was their last. Lanegan fought his addictions, pursued an acclaimed solo career and joined QOTSA as a floating member; following a farewell set opening the Seattle Experience Music Project in June 2000, Screaming Trees finally withered.

I HEART SCREAMING TREES

Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters

Sometime during the first few months of living with Kurt, we went up to Seattle to visit Mark Lanegan and his friend Dylan Carson [of the drone-core band Earth], who shared a house. We went out drinking that night and we got back about 3am, and they put me on this pullout couch in the living room, where I passed out. I remember waking up, and there was Mark, sitting in a chair at the end of the bed. I looked up at him, and he said, who the fuck are you? I said, Im Dave, Kurts new drummer. We sat there talking for a while, and that was the genesis of our relationship. [laughs]

I remember listening to his solo album, The Winding Sheet, over and over again, when I was living in Olympia. It was Winter, when the sun wouldnt come up until 8am, and would go down by 2 or 3pm - it was like a rainy Scandinavia, it was fucking depressing. And that album was the perfect soundtrack for that season.

Mark is one of the most gifted and tortured artists youll ever hear. I have nothing but respect for that guy. I remember Nirvana playing Roskilde festival in Denmark with the Screaming Trees, 1992. In the middle of their set Lanegan freaked out, picked up a monitor and threw it into the pit and beat up three or four security guards. We had to hide him in the dressing room. But you dont wanna mess with that dude. Give him a microphone, let him sing, then get the fuck out of his way.

ESSENTIAL PURCHASE

‘Sweet Oblivion’

(Epic, 1992)

DEEP STEWED angst filtered through soaring riffage, ‘Sweet Oblivion’ showcased Lanegan’s burnished vocals and Gary Lee’s howling, poignant solos. ‘Dollar Bill’, a brilliantly-wretched farewell ballad, became their signature tune, while the disarmingly-pop ‘Nearly Lost You’ features on the soundtrack to ‘grunge’ rom-com Singles. But it’s the pulverisingly bleak, heroic ‘No One Knows’ that kills hardest, Lanegan audibly wracked with guilt and regret.

FOLLOW-UP PURCHASE

‘Dust’

(Epic, 1996)

AFTER SCRAPPING two albums’ worth of material recorded after ‘Sweet Oblivion’, the Trees hooked up with legendary producer George Drakoulias (Aerosmith, Black Crowes) for this psychedelic epic, Drakoulias honing the cinematic breadth of the Trees’ classic riffage. Strings, tabla, sitars - all were enlisted for this grand, finely-detailed canvas, and Lanegan was never in finer voice. Still, the mainstream remained unmoved, and subsequent drug- and violence-fuelled touring finally killed the band.

ALSO RECOMMENDED

‘Anthology: SST Years 1985-1989’

(SST, 1991)

LATER DISOWNED by Lanegan, the Trees recorded three albums and an EP for legendary hardcore label SST during the 1980s, tentative tracks that spanned garage-rock, psychedelia, and the classic-grunge that later won them fame. ‘Anthology’ compiles choice moments from these impossible-to-find albums, at times amateurish and awkward, but more often grandiose and glorious in the Trees tradition. ‘Grey Diamond Desert’ is worth entrance fee alone.

WILD CARD

‘Whiskey For The Holy Ghost’

(Sub Pop, 1993)

LANEGAN’S SOLO career began in 1989 with an aborted EP of Leadbelly covers accompanied by Nirvana’s Kris and Kurdt; a version of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ from that session made the cut for his solo debut, ‘The Winding Sheet’. This follow-up is Lanegan’s favourite, compiled from various aborted sessions over 4 years, a darker and deeper vein of blues than Screaming Trees ever mined. The thunderous ‘Boracho’ is the highlight.

AVOID

‘Uncle Anaesthesia’

(Epic, 1991)

FROM ITS grotesque sleeve to the weedy production job from Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell (Don Fleming would prove on ‘Sweet Oblivion’ to be the Trees’ perfect match), everything about the Trees’ major-label debut is a misfire. Even the songs, caught between their psychedelic past and their classic-grunge future, never quite inspire. Its failure temporarily split the forever-feuding band, and inspired Lanegan to finally take the reins.

BURN THESE!

Cold Rain

A STROLL across the Northwestern landscape during a thunderstorm-abetted acid trip, soaking up addled magic, this whimsical, rough-hewn stomp captures early Trees at their naive best.

FIND IT: ‘Even If And Especially When’, 1987

In The Forest

BRUTAL STACCATO guitar slashes open this vicious garage-rock throw-down, pondering the primal Law of the Jungle. “This animal’s wild, he roams where he wants,” warns Lanegan.

FIND IT: ‘Even If And Especially When’, 1987

Girl Behind The Mask

A GHOSTLY, shimmering ballad, the earliest indication of where Lanegan’s muse would later wander. His baritone rings like Seattle’s answer to Nick Cave, swaggering and mysterious.

FIND IT: ‘Even If And Especially When’, 1987

Grey Diamond Desert

LANEGAN’S WEARY vocal hovers wisely over echoing sand-dune guitars and reverb-drenched pianos. Stunningly evocative and bravely experimental, it’s the best of their work for SST, and maybe their career.

FIND IT: ‘Invisible Lantern’, 1988

End Of The Universe

THIS WONDERFULLY ludicrous epic of bubblegum psychedelia delivers Armageddon with a whip crack riff of planet-levelling proportions. Lanegan sounds almost grateful for obliteration.

FIND IT: ‘Buzz Factory’, 1989

I’ve Seen You Before

THEIR EARLY psychedelic experiments redrawn with a new confidence, this sliver from their sole release on Sub Pop is a trip of karmic guitar, death-rattle tambourine, and Lanegan’s stoned, immaculate vocal.

FIND IT: ‘Change Has Come’ EP, 1990

Disappearing

A BRIGHT spot amid the mire of ‘Uncle Anaethesia’, this elegant, eerie Calexican waltz indicates the influence Lanegan’s solo work would soon have over the later Trees output.

FIND IT: ‘Uncle Anaesthesia’, 1991

Shadow Of The Season

AN EXISTENTIAL blues written from the brink. Over a spidery Old Testament squall, Lanegan sounds impressively ancient, pondering options of “pain and misery” or “sweet oblivion”.

FIND IT: ‘Sweet Oblivion’, 1992

I Nearly Lost You

LANEGAN’S TALE of a relationship run adrift infests Gary Lee’s wah-wah riff with fear and paranoia for Screaming Trees’ lone MTV-approved almost-hit. Elemental and elegant rock.

FIND IT: ‘Sweet Oblivion’, 1992

Dollar Bill

“I DON’T want to hurt you,” rails Lanegan, over sombre and graceful guitar and strings, “But that’s all I seem to do.” Sometimes “Goodbye” is a harder word to say than “Sorry”, but you still gotta say it.

FIND IT: ‘Sweet Oblivion’, 1992

More Or Less

A MORDANT slog etched with regret, Gary Lee’s wailing solos ringing with poignant, bitter wisdom. “Just be glad that it’s all over”, sighs Lanegan, offering the coldest of comforts.

FIND IT: ‘Sweet Oblivion’, 1992

No One Knows

“WHAT HAVE I done wrong?” howls Lanegan, noble and wretched, as Gary Lee’s guitar screams a soaring, sad refrain. That voice again, desperate now: “Won’t somebody tell me, what have I done wrong?”

FIND IT: ‘Sweet Oblivion’, 1992

Julie Paradise

THIS CLIMACTIC murder blues is a pounding, desperate brawl of wounded wailing and lashing fluorescent guitars, sounding like the band trashed the studio in the process

FIND IT: ‘Sweet Oblivion’, 1992

Paperback Bible

FROM 1994 sessions for ‘Sweet Oblivion’’s abandoned follow-up, tying its redemptive message - “Mercy’s there to find” - to a buckling Zep riff. Colossal, and grimly hopeful.

FIND IT: ‘Ocean Of Confusion: Songs 1990-1996’

Caught Between/The Secret Kind

CAPTURED FOR a B-Side while touring ‘Sweet Oblivion’: the Screaming Trees live. It’s a searing, animalistic noise, Barrett Martin pummelling his kit to atoms on this chainsaw medley.

FIND IT: ‘Sworn And Broken’, 1996

Halo Of Ashes

THE OPENING rush of sitars announces the grandiose flair of Drakoulias-era Trees: crushing riffs couched in eerie harmonies, adding a mystical heft to their already-considerable weight.

FIND IT: ‘Dust’, 1996

Dying Days

AN ELEGY for all the dead rock-stars, this song of survival sharpened by a spitfire guitar solo from Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready. “Ghost town used to be my city,” mourns Lanegan of Seattle.

FIND IT: ‘Dust’, 1996

Sworn And Broken

FRAGILE AND beautiful, this secular gospel of regret was one of Screaming Trees most sombre, subtle and austere songs, melting into a choir of celestial organs for its heart-breaking coda.

FIND IT: ‘Dust’, 1996

Make My Mind

“JUST WANNA leave this world behind,” croons Lanegan, on this chiming classic rock hymnal, caught between abandoning his sinful life for a better one, or for that which follows death.

FIND IT: ‘Dust’, 1996

Gospel Plow

THEIR FINAL gasp opens like an Eastern spiritual, and closes only after a monolithic, prehistoric riff has reduced their collective neuroses - life, death, love, drugs, God - to ashes and dust.

FIND IT: ‘Dust’, 1996

(c) Stevie Chick, 2006

2 comments:

Drew said...

An excellent overview of the Trees career and their highlights. As a long-time devotee of all things Trees-related, I want to thank you for a great "where to start" for one of rock's most underappreciated bands. It seems like everyone who I introduce to Screaming Trees music absolutely loves them--no matter if their tastes run the gamut from twee pop to metal. The band's evolution is incredible to behold, and you can find something exhilarating on each record.

Stevie Chick said...

thanks drew, that means a lot! only a fool couldn't love the Trees...