I’ll never forget the first time I listened to the Screaming Trees’ Anthology: SST Years 1985-1989. Introduced to the Trees like many through 1992’s Sweet Oblivion, I couldn’t restrain a smile when “Barriers” began. Mark Lanegan’s voice wound into the song high and thin in a time before whiskey and cigarettes charred it into the huskiness heard on “Nearly Lost You” and “Shadow of the Season.” Similarly, when “When Your Number Is Up” kicks in on Lanegan’s latest solo release, Bubblegum, it’s hard to suppress a grin. This time, however, it’s due not to bemused shock, but appreciative awe at Lanegan’s unmistakable rumble. This time it’s backed by everyone from PJ Harvey to Velvet Revolver’s Izzy and Duff. A tad more abrasive and rocking than the late-night blooze of Whiskey For the Holy Ghost and Scraps at Midnight, Bubblegum should appeal to fans of great songwriting, as well as rock dudes understandably bummed at the dissolution of Queens of the Stone Age (for which Lanegan sang; Josh Homme & Nick Olivieri both make appearances here).
“Methamphetamine Blues” , which bore its own EP late last year, is the featured attraction here, aggro-blues with hammer-on-anvil percussion that sounds loud even with the volume turned down low. The lyrics recall the Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues” with “Wake up children / Get right soul church / Keep a lock on the kitchen / Do risks for your daddy.” It’s blues rock in the best sense. Not the stereotypical meshing personified in the fictional band “Blues Hammer” in Ghost World, but fresh, brutal, and alive. “Hit The City” utilizes church organ, a zooming bass, and PJ Harvey’s voice bleeding into distortion behind Mark, “In Marianne I dug the hole / And watched her trip on my heart of stone / And in the end all that crawled / Was my skin, I couldn’t kill it.”
As solid and earned as the heaviest material is (the single “Sideways In Reverse” is brutally catchy), some of the album’s best moments are more stripped down. “Bombed” is a one-minute long lullaby of sorts that gives the album its name, “When I’m bombed I stretch like bubblegum” he purrs way, way down low. “Strange Religion” sounds like dust in a pillar of stained-glass filtered light, swirling around leisurely in 6/8 time. Lyrical conceits here, as on the rest of the album, concern gambling, cars, religion, and the night. It’s certainly familiar territory, but there’s no denying the conviction in Lanegan’s musing, “Get in next to me, just keep driving / Cause of you I been alive / And this Buick’s a Century, ‘73 like you.” The processed-bass/organ that’s tied to the drums on “Wedding Dress” makes an oddly addictive anchor to the song, playing counterpoint to the wordless female harmonies between verses. Guitar feedback squalls before it’s spun into a keening solo. “When Your Number Isn’t Up” is perfect hangdog soul, beginning with faint piano tinkling before the spotlight shifts to the singer, “Did you call for the night porter? / You smell the blood running warm / I stay close to this frozen border / So close I can hit it with a stone.”
At 15 songs, the album could stand a trim here and there. Not that any particular song cries out “Dud!”, but some songs inevitably shine brighter than others. “Morning Glory Wine” works well to provide ballast for the heavier songs near the record’s end, but it pales slightly in comparison to “Strange Religion”. Likewise, “Death Valley Blues” might one rave-up too many. But as the Bubblegum draws to a close with the jangly saloon rock of “Out Of Nowhere”, you know you’ve been served well. It might scare the children, but in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?