Three years before the great grunge rush of 1991, former members of a Boise, Idaho punk band called State of Confusion moved to Seattle in search of an audience and a musical community. Their new band, Treepeople, lasted as long as the grunge hype did, but the quartet’s dense post-punk music (as well as its career) remained relatively unaffected by the Seattle scene of which it became a part.
Treepeople confidently established its sound with the Time Whore EP, blending aggressive punk, catchy pop and quirky art-rock. With both Doug Martsch and Scott Schmaljohn playing guitar and singing, the music is cluttered and busy. Screaming guitar solos lie buried beneath layers of fuzz; somewhere in the middle lies Martsch’s strained, breaking voice, searching for a meaning to social relationships. “Party” and “Tongues on Thrones” both offer perfect balances of hooks and noise, though “Radio Man” shows the band in its most generic punk guise. On “Size of a Quarter,” the band backs snippets of medical news banter from the radio and TV with some of the album’s best guitar bedlam.
The 12-track Guilt Regret Embarrassment CD is sprawling and less absorbing than Time Whore. The band adds David Bowie and Butthole Surfers covers to a mix of melody, guitar sonics, thoughtful angst and the occasional TV or radio sample.
The problem with much of the Treepeople’s recorded music is that it constantly hints at originality and catharsis without actually ever offering them. On no album is this more clear than on Something Vicious for Tomorrow (which includes the Time Whore EP, resequenced and with one track substitution). On the title song and “It’s Alright Now Ma,” every interesting lyric, voice or guitar sound that emerges from the noisy swirl is pushed back under again. Schmaljohn adds more vocals to this album, and his regular-guy voice makes a good foil for Martsch’s strangled cries. Together, the two turn the Smiths’ “Bigmouth Strikes Again” from mannered to pissed-off.
Just Kidding is almost two albums in one: the first half is dominated by Schmaljohn (along with new drummer Eric Akre), the second by Martsch. The latter’s “Anything’s Impossible” is one of the album’s strongest songs, full of the rapid tempo changes and twisted guitar lines that unhinged previous Treepeople songs; on “Neil’s Down,” he stops thinking and just screams “I hated you” between angsty explosions of guitar and drums. Despite its schism, Just Kidding is a more straightforward rock record than the Treepeople’s previous albums, ending with what may be the closest thing to a ballad Treepeople has ever played, “Outside In.”
Claiming that he was sick of Seattle and tired of touring, Martsch moved back to Boise to form Built to Spill. Schmaljohn, the only original member of the band remaining, recruited John Polle to fill in on guitar and vocals for Treepeople’s final album, Actual Re-enactment. The result is more cohesive but less distinctive. Songs teeter between hard rock (“Wha’d I Mean to Think You Said”) and indie-rock (“Bag of Wood”). As a last album, Actual Re-enactment sounds more like a first one, with the Treepeople no longer a band perfecting a dense post-punk fusion but one searching for an identity as a sensitive but aggressive alternative-rock group.