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
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
America Is Dying Slowly
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.
While quite a few of the tunes on America Is Dying Slowly fail to broach the subject of AIDS, it's heartening how many do. Unlike past Red Hot projects, which were more about raising funds than awareness, the conversational aspect of rap allows for plenty of room to address the topic directly without sounding awkward or preachy. While making us dance and laugh, Domino tells us to "Sport That Raincoat," and Biz Markie, Chubb Rock and Prince Paul warn, "No Rubber, No Backstage Pass." Not all the messages are so on the mark. Bits of the usual conspiracy theories and entirely too much finger pointing cloud things somewhat -- i.e., the frequent shifting of blame to "no-good hoes."
Nevertheless, the compilation does deliver sensitivity and subtlety from some unlikely places. Wu-Tang Clan's title track, for instance, limps along on a simple two-chord piano loop that makes for some of the most melancholic hip-hop ever created. And adding a unique -- and long overdue -- spin to the various viewpoints offered here, Eightball and MJG (from Houston's own Suave label) rap from the virus' perspective on "Listen to Me Now." How appropriate, considering that AIDS is the most ruthless and indiscriminate gangsta in town. (***)
-- Roni Sarig
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Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Seven frayed originals that sound like Ragged Glory's stale leftovers, a gamy, disinterested rendering of Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do" and a rhythm section that plods along more lethargically than usual. Yes, yes, I know. Even middling Neil Young and Crazy Horse isn't all bad. But the averageness of Broken Arrow certainly strains that contention to its breaking point. And with all the feisty youngsters (Son Volt, et al.) out to do Crazy Horse one better, Young can ill afford to lapse into laziness if he wants to keep pace. Then again, maybe it's time for him to park it for a while. (** 1/2)
-- Hobart Rowland
CDs are rated on a one to five star scale.