[11 May 2006]
Maybe it’s a more natural connection than indicated at first blush, but who would have guessed that the leaders of the ‘90s Seattle grunge explosion would now be making serious inroads in the Americana scene? Sure, there’s earlier evidence of cross-pollination; the Supersuckers have lived in both worlds for years (they once called Seattle’s Sub Pop Records home, you’ll recall), and Pearl Jam buddied up with Neil Young ages ago. Lately though, the grunge-to-Americana connection has been gaining steam, with enjoyable results. Mudhoney’s Steve Turner, uh, turned in the fantastic, if little heard, Steve Turner And His Bad Ideas back in 2004, and Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees has, on his solo albums, been exploring the creepy/gothic side of Americana since his band’s demise. To this list, we can add Mark Pickerel, who was the Screaming Trees drummer during the band’s stint on SST in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. His first solo album, Snake in the Radio, for alt-country outpost Bloodshot Records, puts him near the top of the lengthening grunge-guy-gone-Americana list.
Not that Pickerel’s new to the scene, having worked with alt-country siren Neko Case on the Wanda Jackson tribute album, Hard Headed Woman (they turned in “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”). Still, on Snake in the Radio Pickerel sounds like he’s been an Americana guy since birth. The opener, “Forest Fire”, boasts a friendly lope and plenty of steel guitar (courtesy of Margrethe Bjorklund), while “Come Home Blues” is a convincing mid-tempo desert trail number. You’d never guess he still calls Washington State home.
Throughout, Pickerel sounds like a less-ravaged Lanegan with a more upbeat outlook on life. To wit, there’s the beautiful ballad “I’ll Wait”, where Pickerel’s narrator patiently will “wait another day / To hear the words you want to say” (hint: “I love you”). He loves a shy girl and is in no mood to rush: “Even this panther knows when to move slow,” he promises. Toss in a sweet, shambling guitar solo, and “I’ll Wait” is easily one of the album’s best tunes.
That distinction is shared with the title track. But before I get too far along, ya gotta love the cover art, drawn by Pickerel. It’s a clever take off on His Master’s Voice, and is a near-perfect summation of radio’s current problems. But and so, the song itself is crackly, haunting and atmospheric, as if beamed in from another era. Pickerel never identifies the “snake”, letting the listener chose his/her favorite scapegoat for radio’s demise, but there’s genuine anger (and disappointment?) in lines like “It had poisoned all the airwaves / Poisoned all the shows”. Yes, picking on the radio is akin to shooting fish in a barrel, hell, even the Vines have done it this spring, but Pickerel’s passion helps the song transcend cliché.
And since Americana isn’t just backwoodsy twang, Pickerel also tackles soul(ish) roots rock on “You’ll Be Mine” and “Sin Tax Dance” (think Boston’s the Gentlemen), the bluesy/punky “A Town Too Fast For Your Blues” and the blues/oom-pa-pa mash-up “Town Without the Blues”. Pickerel, to his credit, is convincing on nearly every track; only the vague character sketch “Graffiti Girl” fails to connect.
Call it maturity, wanderlust, the need to maintain artistic relevance, or the realization that much of grunge was roots rock with more guitar distortion, but this Americana-by-way-of-Seattle storyline (for lack of a better description) has been an enjoyable development. We may never see a Chris Cornell/John Hiatt team-up, but whoever next joins this musical fold will have a tough time topping Snake In The Radio.