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Friday, June 8, 2012

Screaming Trees, "Dust"

Screaming Trees
Epic (1996)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die + 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

A lot of this music is as new to me as it is to you. Ray Barretto, Waldemar Bastos, King Sunny Ade? This isn't exactly stuff that gets played a lot on mainstream radio, nor did my parents jam to free jazz at home when I was a child. Every once in a while however, there's an album or a band that I am more than familiar with thanks to my listening roots. The Screaming Trees is one of those bands. My first and still greatest love is the Seattle grunge movement, and this band and the album "Dust" are near the top.

It's surprising to me that of all the bands that emerged from the Pacific Northwest at the time, the Screaming Trees weren't one to dominate the charts. Early Pearl Jam has plenty of pop appeal, but Alice in Chains was so sludgy, Soundgarden tended towards the cerebral, and Nirvana shunned popularity like the plague. The Trees wasn't bombastically talented, but they knew what they were doing and put forth some of the catchiest songs of the era.

As with the aforementioned bands, most of the group's appeal revolved around the distinct voice of its lead singer, in this case Mark Lanegan. Lanegan has a scratchy baritone that walks an emotional tightrope between laughter and tears. He's not a vocal powerhouse, but his tone makes the narratives seem too honest to ignore. "Sworn and Broken" showcases his heartbreaking abilities (we'll come back to this track).

The band is also easy to listen to thanks to its effective use of the simple verse-lead-in-chorus formula. True, "Dust" features some more exotic instrumentation than the band's previous (and equally great) album "Sweet Oblivion," including the sitar and the mellotron, but the approach is still straightforward. Look at songs like single "All I Know" or "Make My Mind:" The verses are in a mellow style typical of Lanegan's voice, the instruments pick up steam during the lead-in, culminating in a rousing refrain. Nearly every band does it, just not nearly as well as these guys. The Trees aren't a band wont to shred, but Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready adds a psychedelic outro to single "Dying Days."

I mentioned the track "Sworn and Broken" before, and I have to add a bias disclaimer before fully examining it here. I have a list of five "favorite" songs, and "Sworn and Broken" is one of two that will appear in this blog, so I take it pretty seriously. Reading the lyrics alone, it is obviously a sad song. However, listening to Lanegan tell it, there are simultaneous moments of hope and heartbreak. I'm not ashamed to admit that it has both made me grin widely and brought me to the verge of tears. The blend of electric melody from Gary Lee Conner's guitar and acoustic rhythm from Lanegan's add to the mixed-feelings effect. The final touch is the bridge, a mellotron version of the Pachelbel Canon played by original Heartbreaker Benmont Tench. This classic piece has been played enough at both weddings and funerals to throw anyone's emotions into limbo. Enough of me talking. Just listen to this song already.

So why didn't the Screaming Trees become as big as its Seattle cohorts? Probably because substance abuse and internal conflict marred the production of new music. Same story, different band. It took four years for the Trees to make "Dust" after "Oblivion," and the group would fold without releasing another album. The good news is that none of them died, and I can still look forward to a reunion show.

INTERESTING FACT: Barrett Martin, the drummer from the Screaming Trees and an ethnomusicologist, has been an official Zen monk in the Soto tradition since 2000.

Sworn and Broken by Screaming Trees on Grooveshark

1 comment:

  1. Great post, a genre and time that I am well familiar with, but somehow I missed the Trees altogether in my younger days. I'll be posting very soon on the Seattle scene-- I'll send the link when it's up. You might think it's interesting