In some ways, the idea of grunge as a musical umbrella was a myth; a media invention borne from a lazy journalistic need to pigeonhole everything. Most of the bands that broke through in the early 90s actually had little in common aside from a geographic locale: Nirvana’s Pixies and Wipers obsessions bore little resemblance to Soundgarden’s updating of Black Sabbath’s monolithic riffery, just as that had absolutely nothing in common with Mudhoney’s desire to be Iggy & The Stooges. Yet, they were often lumped together. Also primarily thought of as a “grunge band”, from their inception in the mid-80s right through to their quiet demise approximately fifteen years later, Screaming Trees honed retro sounds of yet a different kind. Here was a band that drew influence from heavy psychedelia. Like the other more popular Washington State bands, their only obvious link came from a love of khaki kecks and heavy plaid shirts.
Screaming Trees barely managed any UK press until they left Greg Ginn‘s SST label for Epic/Sony in 1990. Their first major label disc ‘Uncle Anesthesia’ perfected many of the styles they’d shown a love for on their early albums. A near perfect example of everything they’d aimed for, with its contrast of heavy jangling guitar lines and the forlorn vocal mood of the now legendary Mark Lanegan, the album’s single ‘Bed of Roses’ was the most perfect Screaming Trees song to date, but it wasn’t the massive seller everyone had hoped for.
By 1992, half the alternative world had gone Seattle crazy (much to the disgust of the big haired glam bands and their fans, some of whom were still bitching in 2012), and Screaming Trees – by way of media association with the Nirvanas and Pearl Jams of the world – had started to reap some benefit. Their sixth full length album ‘Sweet Oblivion’ (released in March ’92) was met with many favourable reviews and the band were even featured on the BBC’s ‘Late Show’ arts programme for a live performance. ‘Sweet Oblivion’ was one of those albums where the musical ideas were more coherent than ever before, but without concession to offering anything more commercial than the previous two releases.
Listening to the album decades after the fact, it’s a record that’s lost none of its power. Throughout most of the eleven cuts that featured on the original CD release, the band are in top form, with only the opening track ‘Shadow of The Season’ requiring time and patience to appreciate. Even then, that’s a track that sounds so much like a natural continuation from the previous album, with its heavy intro where Gary Lee Conner’s complex guitar lines evoke sounds that could’ve just as well come from the scales of a sitar, while new drummer Barrett Martin demonstrates some fine percussive chops. Dropping into the main riff and with Gary taking more of a back seat, the interplay between Martin and bassist Van Conner is incredibly natural, but once the slightly funky, semi-blues fusion grabs a hold, the real star is Lanegan whose whiskey soaked voice calls through the music with a beautiful pain.
Less percussive and more accessible, the album’s two singles ‘Nearly Lost You’ and ‘Dollar Bill’ cement the classic Trees sound and showcase the sadness and wonder that Lanegan is able to deliver – often within the same line – while the rest of the band show off influences from jangling sixties psych, blues rock and more. The hard jangle of the former revisits the feel of the earlier ‘Bed of Roses’, but between a bigger recording budget and a much better drummer, does a far smarter job. Gary’s swirling, phased guitar lines are very much of the kind that make an instant impression due to his very economic style, but repeated listens draw more attention to the rhythm section. During the bridge section, some genuine magic comes from a fat bassline weaving its way through a jazz-funk drum part that could’ve been the work of Jane’s Addiction‘s Stephen Perkins. Leaning more towards the bluesy, ‘Dollar Bill’ gives Lanegan plenty of space to stretch his voice, and here it’s very much the voice of pain and displacement as he sings of being torn in a relationship where he wishes the other person no hurt, but can see no way out without inflicting emotional pain. Along with ‘Butterfly’ – another song that tackles feelings of displacement – it could well be one of the saddest songs to ever emerge from the era. ‘Butterfly’ doesn’t sound anywhere near as tormented – at least not outwardly – due to the band locking in to a very 60s psychedelic groove bolstered by a little bit of extra 90s meat, but Lanegan’s performance and lyric very much suggest a man in a place of insecurity. “Cry, cry little butterfly” he croons, before revealing the obvious death of something with a short life span, before topping that with more hurt, which in this case manifests in the most direct and angry pay-off line “I’m sick…and I wanna go home”. All of this, of course, could be a veiled reference to his own on/off drug habits during the period, something which – like Alice In Chains’ ‘Dirt’, but more subtly – seems to inform the writing throughout.
A highlight on an album full of highlights, ‘Troubled Times’ blends two styles seamlessly. Opening with a mournful, straight blues sound, this allows Lanegan a chance to reach deep inside and unveil those even lower registers, sounding like a man at the end of his rope. It’s such an emotive performance that the number could’ve continued in that way…but instead, the bulk of the remainder shows off more finely crafted hard, jangling rock with a melody that never feels too far removed from ‘Nearly Lost You’. A fantastic chorus features a hard vocal with Lanegan in full on cry, which coupled with paired with some fantastic musicianship sounds like a classic decades on. More blues underscores the fuzzy rock of ‘No One Knows’ another track with a genuine richness, as a rare concession to backing vocals adds even more depth to a marvellous tune that could have been inspired by a dozen cult (or forgotten) bands from between 1969-72. The vocal melodies are the kind that Lanegan has found a something of a comfort zone, but the way the sadness in his delivery is accentuated by simple howls from Gary’s guitar more than makes this a stand out.
Absent from the vinyl pressing, ‘For Celebrations Past’ is very much a throwback to the previous album with it’s selection of rattling rhythms and overdriven guitar sounds, coupled with Mark reaching a scratchy vocal peak that’s closer to the howls of Steve Marriott than the blues and soul sounds he’s more often associated. The whole band powers through three minutes almost as if their career hangs on this one performance, and as before, Barrett becomes an absolute powerhouse behind the kit. Without changing the mood too much and certainly not losing momentum, ‘Secret Kind’ is another number with the Trees going at full pelt on a speedy garage rocker that uses the drums to their best advantage, with heavy toms that hark back to surf rock while the lead guitars scream and fuzz in equal measure. If it wasn’t clear previously, Van shows himself to be a world class bassist as parts of the track elevate him in the mix, delivering a really busy workout. For guitar playing highlights, ‘Julie Paradise’ almost manages to squeeze Gary Lee Conner’s entire repertoire into four minutes, as he shifts restlessly between 60s clean tones, fiery Hendrix infused leads – there are at least two absolutely storming solos here – and heavily fuzzed noise. The mix on the final track is so clear, you can almost hear him kicking the Bigmuff pedal on and off. All the best soloing in the world would seem fairly pointless if it weren’t boosting an already great number and this – in terms of melody and confidence – puts the Trees’ shamelessly retro love out there for all to hear. To slavishly – and lazily – call this “grunge” is fairly insulting: you’ll find nothing here that even attempts to use the more familiar traits of how people came to define that sound in the wake of Cobain’s suicide and the scene’s slow demise. This is a sixties/seventies rock band in full flight.
Another truly distinctive tune, the quasi-religious ‘Winter Song’ with “Jesus knocking” upon Lanegan’s door more than flirts with the idea of mortality and being part of a world where he feels uneasy. Vocally speaking, it’s another career best – the kind of thing you’d pull out for someone who’d never heard Lanegan’s voice or Screaming Trees before. Musically, it relies upon many traits in evidence elsewhere throughout the album, but that doesn’t stop the interplay between the rhythm section and the emotive lead guitar and vocal combo sounding like one of the very best things in the Trees’ catalogue, while ‘More or Less’ combines a dirty riff, blues guitar lead and gravel-edged vocal in a really effective way. The chugging, slightly leaden pace reinforces a feeling of unease and while a call and response vocal on the chorus shows yet another new side to the band, it’s always the stately feel to the guitar work combined with mournful voice that’ll leave the lasting impression.
Of course, if you’re a big fan and have owned this album since the early 90s, none of this will be a revelation. Fact is, though, ‘Sweet Oblivion’ is a masterpiece. More than that, it’s aged well, sounding like something that’s far better than a mere product of an era. It very much proves that old idea that if you want your art to feel timeless, then make something that already has an old heart.
The 2019 reissue from Cherry Red Records / HNE Recordings expands on an already brilliant album with a small but finely curated selection of bonus tracks. Three of the seven cuts were appended to the Japanese issue of the album in the mid-90s, but that still gave an incomplete picture. Something long overdue, this edition finally brings all of the period b-sides and extras alongside the main album for the very first time.
The b-sides present some self-penned material alongside a few well chosen cover tunes…and it’s those covers that make this deluxe set an essential purchase, especially with the original CD singles so hard to find. On the best of these, Screaming Trees put their own stamp on ‘Song of A Baker’, originally recorded by Small Faces in ’68. Lots of bands have recorded this – not least of all a great version by Levellers – but this take might just be the best…Small Faces’ own included. Although the spirit of the original is firmly adhered to, the decision to play it slightly more aggressively is a wise one as it gives Gary plenty of opportunity to throw out some great guitar shapes. Although the prospect of Lanegan singing about dough-based products seems like an odd scenario, he’s in fine voice throughout and particularly enthused on the chorus. Leaning towards the media’s expected grunge sound, a reworking of Black Sabbath‘s ‘Tomorrow’s Dream’ is respectful (although Lanegan could run rings around Ozzy, vocally…and does) and a run-through of the traditional gospel tune ‘There’ll Be Peace In The Valley’ once again showcases a fine and heartfelt vocal on a track that’s got more in common with Mark’s early solo records ‘The Winding Sheet’ and the peerless ‘Whiskey For The Holy Ghost’.
The two extra tracks ‘Van’s New One’ and ‘E.S.K.’ are solid enough and are interesting curiosities if you’re a big fan. ‘E.S.K.’ is the better of the two, working a shrill riff from the start before being driven by a great rhythm. Kicking into the chorus, there’s a fuller sound and an interesting multi-layered harmony and Lanegan demonstrates a lighter tone throughout – more akin to the best ‘Uncle Anesthesia’ tracks, making it an important collection filler. It’s available on the ‘Ocean of Confusion’ retrospective but it sounds better as part of this reissue, surrounded by stuff from the same sessions rather than being presented randomly. As its prosaic title suggests, ‘Maybe’ (aka Van’s New One’) is a tune with Van at the helm and, as such, it’s easy to see why it ended up as a cast-off. Conner is a reasonable vocalist – and, indeed, his side-project Solomon Grundy, which this often resembles, is worth an ear – but measured against Lanegan’s performances, this feels a little like those Noel Redding penned tracks on the Hendrix albums. Even so, there’s a half-decent alt-rock number to be (re)discovered and fans of early R.E.M. and early Connells might find some musical enjoyment.
While there isn’t much in the way of unreleased Screaming Trees material from these sessions, it’s a great pity the band’s personal archives couldn’t be raided for a few unheard demos. Maybe it would’ve been nice if the couple of fan circulated live shows couldn’t have leant a few (raw) live cuts. That doesn’t stop this double CD being a very welcome reissue, though: those who’ve long thought about tracking down the extra tracks have now had that job made so much easier – and the package as a whole will be a welcome reminder for some that ‘Sweet Oblivion’ is one of the greatest albums of the era.