Ashes to Ashes
Nirvana and Pearl Jam are the two bands that linger in the public’s consciousness as pinnacles of the early ‘90s Pacific Northwest grunge movement. As we distance ourselves from that decade, both have been cast in amber as go-to models of cultural and topographical representation. Search deeper into that consciousness to find Soundgarden and Alice in Chains resting on a lower tier of recollection, and going further still, uncover bands like Mudhoney and Screaming Trees.
It’s too bad that Screaming Trees don’t retain a spot at the top of that list, as they made some of the best music of that era not to be heard on the same scale of that of their peers. Screaming Trees were consigned to some kind of near-invisible swing shift duty, subsisting on scrap-fed little brother roles: an inclusion on the Singles soundtrack (“Nearly Lost You”, the closest thing the band had to a hit); an opening slot on the goddamned Spin Doctors’ tour, for Chrissakes. Their gnarled gutter riffage echoed Led Zeppelin more than the Stooges, and leading it all was Mark Lanegan’s two-sheets-to-Tom-Waits voice, roughed up and sunken in, the kind of comfort you’d want to accompany you on damp, shadow-strewn Seattle nights. In essence, Screaming Trees were a sonic representation of the earth-toned, raggedy, plaid-favored dress code that their beloved Pacific NW represented at the time. (Not to mention the fact that they were one of the first “grunge” bands to be signed to a major label.)
Now, nearly ten years removed from the Screaming Trees’ swan song Dust, seems like as good a time as any to reacquaint ourselves with the band’s catalog—or perhaps even discover it for the first time. There may be some ulterior cross-promotional motive in Epic’s decision to suddenly release the best-of Ocean of Confusion: Songs of Screaming Trees 1989-1996, but it’s all good. (Read: Lanegan is in the midst of a solo renaissance, thanks in part to last year’s fantastic Bubblegum and his tenure in Queens of the Stone Age.) If Ocean of Confusion boosts the profile of Screaming Trees then it will thankfully save them from a fate in a purgatory of ignorance, where they most certainly don’t belong. Regardless, Ocean of Confusion is a worthy retrospective, full of great choices; as an overview of the band, it’s exceedingly sufficient. (True, 12 of the disc’s 19 songs come from two albums, but Sweet Oblivion and Dust are the band’s finest hours and deserve the most exposure.)
Ocean of Confusion begins when the Screaming Trees’ tenure with Epic began, circa 1990, after releasing albums on the Velvetone, Sub Pop, and SST labels (thus it’s not a comprehensive career overview, but it does capture what were arguably the Trees’ best years). On the EP Something About Today (1990) and major label LP debut Uncle Anesthesia (1991) (both co-produced by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell), Screaming Trees had bred themselves to be a rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut, more in touch with their classic rock influences than those of the indie underground. Lanegan’s voice wasn’t as distinctive as it would become, as it was still tied up with the overcast scowls of Staley, Vedder & Co. Included on Ocean of Confusion are some of the best songs from this period, most notably the hypnotic stomp “Alice Said” and the acoustic, horn-augmented “Disappearing”.
Shortly after the release of Uncle Anesthesia, the band (known for its internal combustibility) experienced a sea change in its ranks that altered everything for the better. Drummer Mark Pickerel quit and was replaced by virtuoso Barrett Martin; Lanegan briefly quit to release his first solo album, The Winding Sheet, and returned with a stipulation: he would now write the lyrics, a duty which had been previously handled by guitarist Gary Lee Conner. The resulting album, Sweet Oblivion (1992), represented a giant leap forward: Lanegan was now singing from gut-level, foreboding octaves, relating chilling travelogues from the edge of a haunted psyche; and Martin’s heavy propulsions morphed the band into clenched fists, the sound of a reckoning with its brake lines severed. Ocean of Confusion draws a liberal seven selections from Sweet Oblivion: the blistering, frostbitten “Shadows of the Season”; the infuriatingly catchy “Nearly Lost You” (of the Singles’ soundtrack fame); the Robert-Plant-crawling-on-the-floor ache of “Dollar Bill”; and the wrecking ball havoc of “Julie Paradise” are the highlights.
The band’s final album, 1996’s Dust, is its greatest achievement, a folky-metal hybrid that plays like a maturation of Sweet Oblivion‘s artistic rebirth. Represented by five tracks on this collection, Dust is one of those destined-to-be lost classics, released after the band’s window of opportunity had migrated on to hipper pastures. The band churns a remarkable undertow of hooky sound (incorporating mellotron, harmonium, sitar, and eclectic percussion into its mix), cradling the record’s redemptive sense of mortality on trial. Dust‘s definitive two tracks, “Dying Days” and “Witness”, are two of those included on Ocean of Confusion; both are supreme instances of Screaming Trees’ rapturous power over muscular, musty rock, and like Dust, deserve another look by those who missed out the first time around. Bolstered by two unreleased tracks from 1994 (the Zep-ish “Watchpocket Blues” and moody “Paperback Bible”), Ocean of Confusion is a tap on the shoulder to remind us that such a look is overdue.