During grunge’s heyday, Mark Lanegan was best known for his leading role in Screaming Trees, one of the genre’s few bands that captured your interest for more than ten minutes. However, Lanegan’s solo work — for which he’s justifiably becoming better known — is widely known for its sombre tones and dark beauty, as Lanegan’s weathered voice often mills around in depressingly languid arrangements. Stark and lonely, Lanegan’s songs are probably the sort of thing Charon sings while he’s ferrying your doomed ass across the River Styx.
At the very least, getting caught listening to Lanegan pick-me-ups like The Winding Sheet or Whiskey for the Holy Ghost is enough to make your friends set up an impromptu suicide watch. Heck, Lanegan could sing about puppies or rainbows and it would probably come out like Death patiently and politely clearing his throat from the bottom of a whiskey glass.
So what happened with Here Comes the Weird Chill? Well, for whatever reason, Lanegan’s decided to rock out a bit — although not in his old Screaming Trees form. This time around, Lanegan buries himself under fuzzed-out guitar, unrelenting blues-sludge, and an aesthetic that loiters on the Tom Waits/Captain Beefheart end of the block. To that end, Lanegan even covers Beefheart’s “Clear Spot”, paying homage with a very faithful rendition. As a whole, Chill feels immediate and fairly unstudied, which makes sense given its origin. Lanegan’s next proper release isn’t due until the spring of 2004, so Chill started out as an appetite-whetting single that grew to an 8-song EP of assorted odds ‘n’ ends from those sessions. As a result, Chill clocks in at under 30 minutes, and its seeming off-the-cuff nature reveals a few sides of Lanegan we haven’t seen before.
Since Lanegan’s new album is reportedly under the same “Mark Lanegan Band” moniker that adorns Chill, it feels like a safe bet to say that this EP is an intriguing teaser for that album. This is the most experimental and energized Lanegan’s sounded in years — obviously fueled by his ongoing connections to Queens of the Stone Age. He kicks things off with “Methamphetamine Blues”, a clanking, squalling piece featuring QOTSA’s Josh Homme going nuts on lead guitar. The more it churns and grooves, the more it sounds like somebody threw Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous in a room with Ike Turner. The Queens of the Stone Age connection grows even stronger with “Skeletal History”; the track, co-written by Lanegan, Homme, and Stone Ager Nick Oliveri, shows that someone has been listening to a whole lotta Tool. Teeming with nightmarish images of dentists’ drills, snakes, dry mouths, bleached skeletons, overdoses, and secrets under abandoned houses, the song evokes a time-scraped emotional wasteland as well as anything in recent memory.
The disc’s other obvious standout, “Lexington Slow Down”, starts off with a stately piano supporting a spoken word intro that’s vaguely reminiscent of Waits’s “9th & Hennepin” in its routine bleakness, especially when Lanegan murmurs the tasty line, “this place starts swinging when it’s me on the noose”. From there, Lanegan eases into a passionate, gospel-tinged delivery that actually ends the song on a reasonably upbeat note. “On the Steps of the Cathedral” maintains that semi-religious vibe. At around a minute-and-a-half, it’s little more than a snippet, but somehow succeeds by combining spoken word vocals, snatches of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, and murmuring backing vocals that float in the background like doubters sticking to the back of the church.
A couple of cuts necessarily qualify as filler, but all in all, Here Comes that Weird Chill promises exciting things for Lanegan’s upcoming full-length. This more aggressive style suits him just as well as his more familiar side, and even seems to encourage flashes of experimentation. His traditionally quiet cigs-and-shots meditations will always be welcome, but it’ll be really interesting to see what Lanegan accomplishes now that he’s turned the amps on again.