A melodic mixture of psychedelia and ’60s garage-rock has made the Screaming Trees, spawned in remote Ellensburg, Washington, one of the most influential, atypical and under-rated bands to spring from the Northwest. Highlighted by Mark Lanegan’s deep, mournful voice and Gary Lee Conner’s snarling guitar work, the Trees conjure reverent but never derivative visions of the Seeds, Stooges, 13th Floor Elevators and even the Amboy Dukes. Unlike most of their peers, the Trees improved steadily with each album, moving in a remarkably linear and consistent curve toward the almost classic-rock grace of Sweet Oblivion and the awesomely ambitious Dust. Perhaps most impressive is Lanegan’s progress from a good singer into a truly great one.
Other Worlds (recorded before the band had played a gig) and Clairvoyance both have flashes but are formative efforts that find the young musicians trying to rise above their influences. Even If and Especially When‘s “Transfiguration” is the proverbial quantum leap where the band discovered its voice. Dropping the baby fat (well, some of it) without compromising the trademark garagey roar, the band hit on a sound it would gradually refine on each successive release. Even If sounds like an album made by guys who had just turned 20 — which they actually had.
(Also in the mid-’80s, an experimental/industrial group from Rotheram, England also began releasing records as Screaming Trees.)
Invisible Lantern ups the ante even more as the Trees’ pop streak matures with “Smokerings” and especially the marvelous “Night Comes Creeping.” Bassist Van Conner (Gary Lee’s brother) left for several months in ’88 and was replaced by Donna Dresch (later of Team Dresch). That lineup recorded a lost-to-the-ages disc with Painted Willie guitarist Vic Makauskas, all tapes of which vanished when his studio was sold. (Another great lost Trees album — the reportedly rejected follow-up to Sweet Oblivion — was recorded in early ’94 with producer Don Fleming.)
Buzz Factory completes the SST era in a slightly gnarlier sonic setting courtesy of grunge domo Jack Endino (Steve Fisk had produced all of the band’s prior dates). Highlights include “Where the Twain Shall Meet,” “Flower Web” and “Black Sun Morning.” All of the aforementioned tracks (but nothing from Clairvoyance) appear on the Trees’ 21-cut volume of SST’s Anthology series, but the three post-puberty albums are all well worth owning. The Change Has Come double-7-inch seems to be an outtakes collection but features the dazzling “Days”; the CD and 12-inch include an ultra-psychedelic bonus track.
Uncle Anesthesia, co-produced by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Northwest metal kingpin Terry Date, suffers from some major-label-debut stiffness but generally finds the band benefiting from the sonic upgrade. “Something About Today” and “Bed of Roses” show the group’s songwriting reaching new heights, and the only dip in quality comes on the blatant Doors rip “Before We Arise.” The four-song Something About Today features the excellent “Who Lies in Darkness,” a mutant version of the title track and two album previews. Founding drummer Mark Pickerel left shortly after recording Uncle Anesthesia (he currently serves in Truly) and was replaced by hard-hitting Skin Yard alumnus Barrett Martin.
Screaming Trees’ fortunes rose as “Nearly Lost You” dwarfed almost every other song on the Singles soundtrack, parting the waters for Sweet Oblivion. Boasting a comparatively arena-sized punch (courtesy Don Fleming behind the board), the album fairly screams “maturity,” dispensing with the wah-wah pedals and allowing a latent classic-rock side to shine more brightly than ever. (The band even steals a riff from the Who’s “Naked Eye” for “No One Knows.”)
Although it hasn’t been compiled yet, there’s an album’s worth of B-sides and compilation tracks (including Small Faces, Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath and Youngbloods covers) from the band’s Epic years; none is great, but “E.S.K.” and the acoustic version of “Winter Song” (both on the British Nearly Lost You EP) are worth tracking down. The quartet has also contributed to Sonics, Velvet Underground and John Lennon tribute albums; Lanegan did a song for the Twisted Willie (Nelson) collection.
The Beat Happening/Screaming Trees EP is almost entirely the former’s show, although the one Lanegan-sung track (“Polly Pereguin”) is pretty great.
Lanegan’s first two solo albums are marvelous and easily rank with the Trees’ best work. Providing a fascinating portrait of his role in the band, the albums sound distinctively like him, yet nothing like them. Moody and ominous, they alternate between slow, twanging rockers and stark, yearning laments; both feature a Lee Hazlewood-styled acoustic menace encouraged by the substantial role of longtime friend/Dinosaur Jr bassist Mike Johnson. The Winding Sheet features “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” the sole track to surface from a planned Leadbelly tribute EP by “a botched side-project with some guys in another band” (Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana, who subsequently made good use of the song and Lanegan’s vocal approach to it). Mark Pickerel plays drums on the album; Jack Endino and Steve Fisk also contribute.
The masterful Whiskey for the Holy Ghost (take that, Nick Cave) dramatically one-ups its predecessor, although it took so long to finish that it became a running joke on the Sub Pop release schedule. With guest spots by everyone from Dan Peters of Mudhoney to J Mascis, the album uses acoustic guitars to almost symphonic effect, and the songs find Lanegan pouring misery onto tape in his finest fashion yet.
The Purple Outside is Gary Lee Conner playing everything except drums; it basically sounds like the Trees without Lanegan singing. Solomon Grundy is Van’s side band, whose album rocks aplenty but is a bit thin in the songwriting department. Van also depped for Green Mind-era Dinosaur Jr before Mike Johnson joined the band; Lanegan and Martin appear on albums by Johnson and Mad Season; Lanegan and Gary Lee appear on Mike Watt’s alternative rock-royalty slumber party Ball-Hog or Tugboat?