Screaming Trees

Screaming Trees have never really benefited from their Seattle affiliation; this could explain why the group is so adamant about playing up its true home, the town of Ellensburg, Washington, a good 85 miles southeast of the city. Not ones to be felled by grunge, the Trees validate their stubborn, trend-free stance once and for all with Dust.

Actually, Screaming Trees did cave in to fashion -- but only once. You may remember "Nearly Lost You," the band's generous contribution to the soundtrack of the 1992 flannel-goes-Hollywood film Singles. What you may not remember is that the song was also on the Trees' full-length Sweet Oblivion CD, released later that year. "Nearly Lost You" made it on the radio, but little else from Sweet Oblivion did. And while the Trees managed to sell a respectable 300,000 copies of Oblivion, that wasn't seen as enough. A lot more had been expected from the band.

The nearly four-year gap separating Sweet Oblivion and Dust seems to indicate the weight of those expectations. During that period, Screaming Trees actually scrapped an entire CD and started over again, writing new songs and finding a new producer (George Drakoulias, whose credits include Tom Petty and the Jayhawks). Ironically, "Dying Days," Dust's lone keepsake from the aborted effort, is the CD's most compelling track. A psycho-spiritual paean to mortality and religion propelled along briskly by a "Dear Prudence" descending chord progression and drummer Barret Martin's breakneck meter, "Dying Days" has a fatalistic tone overall, and yet the hearty resonance of Mark Lanegan's voice is oddly life affirming.

Lanegan has to be the least appreciated frontman of Seattle's post-grunge Big Four -- his discreet excesses overshadowed by the highly publicized abuses of Alice in Chains' Layne Staley, his weighty pipes and smoldering gravity on-stage outdone by the delivery and posturing of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. But on Dust, Lanegan takes his place at the front of the pack with singing that's nothing short of a revelation. He's almost completely abandoned his urge to scream for emphasis, making better use of phrasing and his considerable command of the low end. The extra measure of understatement and restraint suits him well.

The music on Dust -- a swirling psychedelic batter thickened with pounding riffs and spiced with Mellotron, cello, congas and other quirky extras -- manages to reverse the downward spiral set in motion by the ominous, mock-biblical settings and vague sense of hopelessness found in the lyrics. While the songs may not have the stand-on-their-own quality of those on Sweet Oblivion, the whole package is more balanced and focused. Taken in full -- which is how it should be experienced -- Dust is a supremely confident model of persistence from a band that has finally hit on a proper ratio of influences to individuality and, by way of that discovery, come belatedly into its own. (**** 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Finn Brothers
Finn Brothers

With the long history of fraternal feuding in rock -- from the Everly Brothers to the Kinks' Davies duo to the Gallagher boys of Oasis -- it's nice to see a pair of musical siblings who can't seem to get enough of each other. Ever since 1977, when Tim Finn invited his little brother Neil to join his modestly successful new wave outfit, New Zealand's Split Enz, the two have set courses in pop music that keep bumping into one another. Tim went solo in 1984 and Neil took over Split Enz; two years later, Neil broke up the band and formed Crowded House, which he then invited Tim to join in '91 (and which Tim then left for another solo flier). Now this year, their self-titled debut finds the Finns together again, name and all.

Finn Brothers is a modest, unassuming CD that successfully combines the conventional beauty we've come to expect from Neil's melodic work with Crowded House and the eccentric charm typical of Tim's edgy art rock post-Split Enz. So where the warbly synth of "Eyes of the World" is all new wave Tim, the piano balladry of "Where Is My Soul" reeks of popster Neil. "Only Talking Sense," meanwhile, does reasonably well combining Tim's angular minimalism with Neil's plaintive croon. And just when you begin to think you've heard it all before, the Finns give us the bossa nova bounce of "Mood Swinging Man" and the tango sway of "Paradise."

Ultimately, though, it's Neil -- the better singer/songwriter of the two -- who makes Finn Brothers memorable. Maybe that's why, more than any past rock siblings, the Finn brothers remind me of the unrelated Simon and Garfunkel. And that, come to think of it, explains a lot about Tim's less-than-inspiring solo career. (***)

-- Roni Sarig

Get Some Crew

Soft-core babble-rap at its most childish and lascivious; 1-900-LOATH-SOME is more like it. (1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Various Artists
America Is Dying Slowly
Red Hot/Eastwest

After releasing seven successful AIDS benefit compilations that focus on genres from dance to indie rock to country, the Red Hot Organization has finally released its first hip-hop CD, America Is Dying Slowly (note the acronym). With AIDS now the number one cause of death for Americans 25 to 44, and African-Americans accounting for 60 percent of the country's cases, you'd think this collection would have happened sooner. But apparently it took the AIDS-related death last year of rapper Eazy-E for the rap/hip-hop community to get moving and address the issue.

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