Flannel File: Screaming Trees, Dust
Is there any file more flannel-y than that of Screaming Trees - a hard-rock band with long hair from Seattle, influenced by the sounds of the '70s and '80s, whose career began to take off in the early '90s but was brought down by substance abuse and infighting? Tom Moon, in his very cool book 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, calls 1992's Dust "the most underappreciated classic of the Seattle rock revolution." I've been familiar with the two most successful ex-members of Screaming Trees for some time, but never gotten into the band, so that was good enough for me. I discovered drummer Barrett Martin first. I saw him with Tuatara, Scott McCaughey's The Minus Five and Mark Eitzel in Atlanta back before the turn of the century, at a show where Martin and the members of Tuatara backed up not just McCaughey and Eitzel, but also, in a surprise encore, R.E.M., who played a cover of Suicide's "Ghost Rider." What does that have to do with Screaming Trees? Nothing, really, but it was a really awesome show. I found out about Mark Lanegan through his work with Queens of the Stone Age - as it turns out, QOTSA leader Josh Homme played in Screaming Trees after his first band Kyuss broke up - and Lanegan's solo albums, which have a cool Beefheart/Waits vibe. Lanegan is a towering presence on the QOTSA albums; by that point, he had worked his unique voice into the sound of an all-powerful being from another plane - god or demon, but impossible to tell which. So I figured, if he's this good in someone else's band, his own will blow me away, right?
Surprisingly, it does not. Dust may well be underappreciated, but I don't think it's a classic. Lanegan's amazing voice, of course, is there, but even after ten years in Screaming Trees he doesn't seem to have the control over it he would display later on, often coming off a little mumbly. His lyrics are pretty good, but these as well are not masterful. "All I Know," which you may remember from the 1996 playlist of your local New Rock radio station, is lyrically barely there at all - with a single this lightweight, no wonder the album didn't take off (although the single did chart at No. 9 Modern Rock). What really surprises me is how generic Screaming Trees' music is. There's little instrumental work here that qualifies as more than competent, even from Martin. As much as Screaming Trees are reputed to stand out from the grunge crowd stylistically, without Lanegan, the band's clean, lightly psychedelic rock would sound more or less like discount Soundgarden. That said, once you really get into this album, you can hear some moving and respectable rock, especially on "Halo of Ashes," "Sworn and Broken," "Witness" and "Gospel Plow." Moon refers to closer listening as "getting past the corrosive roar [and] the foreboding lumberjack bluntness of Lanegan's vocals," which strikes me as a not-terribly-accurate description of what this band sounds like and makes me wonder what he thinks of, say, Shellac . I'd probably go see this band play these songs live. But Screaming Trees sounds like a good underground workhorse, rather than an act that should or even could have been famous. I wonder what Epic was thinking trying to make these guys into stars, a question that this column is likely to bring up with some frequency .
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