Music

Screaming Trees: Ocean of Confusion: Songs of Screaming Trees 1989-1996

Zeth Lundy

Solid overview of the Pacific Northwest band's definitive years on Epic includes two unreleased tracks.


Screaming Trees

Ocean of Confusion: Songs of Screaming Trees 1989-1996

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2005-05-24
UK Release Date: 2005-05-23
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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.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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