The Winding Sheet (Sub Pop ’90) Rating: B+
A far cry from his band work with Screaming Trees, Mark Lanegan’s first solo album is most notable for its hushed, ghostly atmosphere and somber, understated presence. Actually, about half of the songs here feature electric guitar, but these songs share with their acoustic counterparts a similarly dark and moody tone without ever resorting to the big sound of his band’s ‘90s outings. Though it’s the strong music here that most matters, some of Lanegan’s lyrics grabbed me too, such as “it’ll take a hard rain to wash your taste away” or this following pearl of wisdom: “guns guns they all got guns, I’d rather be drunk than dead.” The Winding Sheet is a tad too one-dimensional, and there are some throwaways (most obviously “Juarez”), but this high quality album arguably eclipsed anything that his band had done to date (though not for long). The album’s high point is a menacing, grungy Leadbelly cover titled “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (originally called “In The Pines”), which features Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic on guitar and bass, respectively. Nirvana would later use this version as a template for their own even more inspired rendition, which served as the highlight of their classic Unplugged In New York concert. Note: Dinosaur Jr. bassist/kindred spirit Mike Johnson plays guitar and co-writes much of the music here, and if you like this album I’d also recommend checking out his similarly subdued and also-excellent solo album Year Of Mondays.
Whiskey For The Holy Ghost (Sub Pop ’94) Rating: A-
This fine sequel to The Winding Sheet saw Lanegan writing all the music this time out, while Mike Johnson again lends understated support along with other grunge peers such as Mudhoney’s Dan Peters and Tad Doyle (of Tad). The end result is another album that’s a lot folk and blues and a little rock n’ roll, though I’d be hesitant to label it as any of them. Aside from the occasional rocker (“Borracho”), much of this album sounds like Screaming Trees Unplugged, but the occasional keyboard, violin, saxophone, and female backing vocalist makes the album more varied than its predecessor. Though perhaps it doesn’t have a showstopper song along the lines of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” Whiskey For The Holy Ghost also has its share of highlights (“The River Rise,” “Riding The Nightingale,” and “Shooting Gallery,” for example), and if anything Lanegan matches his evocative music to his impassioned vocals even more effectively here. Those looking for exciting rock music should look elsewhere (such as the Screaming Trees), but those of you who are in the mood for a broodingly beautiful late-night-and-a-bottle-of-booze-album need not look any further.