Anthology: SST Years 1985-1989 (SST Records ’91) Rating: B+
Sweet Oblivion was my introduction to this fine band, and I was so impressed with it that I decided to go back and check out the band’s earlier indie work for SST Records. This 21-song collection consists of three songs from the Other Worlds EP and six songs from each of their full-length SST albums: Even If and Especially When, Invisible Lantern, and Buzz Factory. The early stuff is so different from Sweet Oblivion that it almost sounds like a different band, as back then their psychedelic garage rock sound had more in common with the Meat Puppets than what would later come to be known as grunge. The cornerstone of their early sound was guitarist Gary Lee Connor’s raw, screaming lead guitar, an energetic rhythm section (bassist Van Connor and drummer Mark Pickerel) who were likely equally into punk and jam bands like the Grateful Dead, and singer Mark Lanegan, whose vocals gradually get more forceful throughout Anthology. In fact, early Lanegan is so much less distinctive that he sounds like a different guy entirely; he must've developed a four-packs-per-day smoking habit somewhere along the way. Granted, the songs on this compilation lack diversity, and some of them kinda come and go without leaving much of an impression, but the overall quality is very high, as the band delivers quite a few catchy and genuinely exciting songs. Songs 1-15 are produced by Steve Fisk, and some highlights from this trippy period include “Transfiguration,” “Don’t Look Down,” “Walk Through This Side,” “Smokerings,” "Grey Diamond Desert," “Night Comes Creeping,” and "Invisible Lantern." Songs 16-21 are produced by grungemeister Jack Endino, and his dirty touch is apparent as the band’s sound becomes heavier, while Lanegan starts to come into his own on songs such as “Black Sun Morning,” "Flower Web," “End Of The Universe,” and "Where The Train Shall Meet." The SST-era Screaming Trees had an intriguing hybrid sound, and this generously assembled package offers a perfect chance to catch up to the band’s distinguished beginnings.
Uncle Anesthesia (Epic ’91) Rating: B+
The band's major label debut gets a bit of a bad rap since it's clearly inferior to the two stellar albums that followed, and is therefore often viewed as a disappointment. Produced by Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and noted heavy metal producer Terry Date, Uncle Anesthesia is actually an impressive and enjoyable listen, with with the caveat being that not many of its individual songs really stand out from one another. "Bed Of Roses" was actually a minor hit, and it is one of the albums more tuneful tracks along with "Lay Your Head Down" and "Alice Said," the latter of which gets my vote for the album's best song (and which likely inspired the ill-fitting Alice in Wonderland-like album cover). But this is a consistent album with its fair share of strong songs and performances, such as Lanegan's great vocals (his confidence having been further bolstered by a strong solo album, The Winding Sheet) on "Caught Between" and "Closer," which also feature exciting guitar solos, as does "Time For Light." "Beyond This Horizon," the title track, and "Ocean Of Confusion" are explosive yet melodic rockers, while the slow, moody, dirge-like "Before We Arise" is more in line with Lanegan's solo stuff. Other atypical Trees entries include "Something About Today," mostly due to Gary Lee's unique guitar tone come solo time (it's pounding groove is typical Trees, and that's a good thing), and "Disappearing, on which horns are seamlessly integrated. If I have a problem with this album it's that most of these songs fall into the "good" rather than "great" category. Perhaps the album could use a few more hooks, and maybe there are times when the sound is more smoothed over than I'd like (don't worry, there are still plenty of distorted guitars), but this is an atmospheric, tuneful, and hard rocking package that's well worth checking out - afterSweet Oblivion and Dust.
Sweet Oblivion (Epic ’92) Rating: A
One of the most underrated bands around, this proud Northwestern unit came through with their best album to date at the height of grunge, even snatching some of their more celebrated comrades’ thunder on the awesome Singles soundtrack with the spectacular “Nearly Lost You,” a song that originated here. This album still didn’t sell as well as they might’ve hoped, in part because the band had a harder to package image (the burly Connor brothers look more like lumberjacks than rock stars) than their Seattle counterparts. But the music on Sweet Oblivion is easily their most assured and accomplished to date. Their big sound is anchored around Gary Lee Conner’s swirling guitar, impressive new drummer Barrett Martin’s hard hitting skin pounding, and the coarse, frayed vocals of Mark Lanegan, who has become one of rock music’s most compelling voices. Heavy and melodic, with a piercingly bluesy psychedelic sound, their epic choruses owe much to the classic rock bands who have clearly inspired them, though the band has often been lumped in with the grunge groups who they never really fit in with. The group has co-composed many of these songs, more so than in the past, which has apparently done much for their creative muse, as hard rocking tracks such as “Shadow Of The Season,” “Nearly Lost You,” and “Troubled Times” stand comfortably beside mellower songs such as “Dollar Bill,” “No One Knows,” and “Julie Paradise.” Of course, even the mellower songs eventually emerge into fully blown anthems, while “Butterfly” and “Winter Song” probably present the album’s most singable choruses. Other intense and impassioned songs such as “More Or Less,” “For Celebrations Past,” and “Troubled Times” are boosted by Lanegan’s weathered, whiskey soaked growl, which can redeem even the lesser moments here (as can Gary Lee's guitar playing). Fortunately, those are few and far between on this consistently stellar collection.
Dust (Epic ’96) Rating: A-
If I recall correctly, the band ditched a full album’s worth of material before getting it right the second time around with producer George Drakoulias on Dust (Don Fleming, who had done such a fine job producing Sweet Oblivion, had worked with the band on the failed sessions). The band’s perfectionist tendencies paid off, because even though I slightly prefer Sweet Oblivion, this ambitious album likewise leaves me mystified as to why these guys never made it bigger. Should've been classic singles such as “All I Know” and “Dying Days” have big catchy choruses that seem ready made for radio play (that didn't happen, of course), as the band tones down their grungier elements for a more lushly atmospheric but still hard rocking sound. The band nods to Led Zeppelin by way of powerfully psychedelic, exotic yet rocking, Eastern-tinged tracks like “Halo Of Ashes,” “Dime Western,” and the epic length “Gospel Plow,” and the increased use of instrumentation (mellotrons, sitars, organs/pianos, cellos, etc.) has expanded the band’s musical palette. Screaming Trees are also in fine form on mellower songs such as “Look At You,” an evocative, melancholic number that of course has some big guitars and drums too (Pickerel was no slouch but man Barrett Martin is an absolute beast), and “Sworn And Broken,” a slow sing along (hippie-ish harmonies throughout reinforce the album's earthy qualities) that has the album’s most delightfully surprising solo (on harmonium I think). "Witness" is a bit more generic (it still rocks hard, though) and I find "Traveler," a lushly decorated acoustic ballad, to be a bit overlong and boring, but rest assured that the overall quality of this album is hard to argue against; "Make My Mind" is another surging, melodic rocker with impressive performances by all involved. Alas, despite glowing reviews, the respect of their peers, and a loyal cult following the band never broke through to major mainstream success, and with Lanegan content with his solo career and side work with Queens Of The Stone Age it appears that this album will be this volatile band’s last, as they broke up amid little fanfare in 2000. Personally I'm still hopeful for a reunion album, but if it never happens at least they'll have left behind an impressive legacy. Note: Although that reunion album has yet to materialize as of 2014, Last Words: The Final Recordings, recorded in 1998-99 but not released until 2011, should suffice. Sweet Oblivion and Dust are still my go-to albums with these guys, but this surprising release was another nice addition.