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Rock and Roll Feature: The Screaming Trees, Straight Out of the Sweet Oblivion
This is the twentieth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
This month's feature took me significantly longer to finish, and subsequently post, but I think it's worth it. Really it wasn't any longer to write, it just took longer because I wrote two. Originally, I had an album all picked out for this month, and I even had the feature mostly written up... in need of some editing sure, but still, basically finished. And then, for some reason, I felt the need to investigate a band from my past... or should I say re-investigate. I first remember hearing about this band back in the mid 90s, but for whatever reason they remained outside of my musical scope, never really registering even when I heard a track or two.
Now, I've not only re-investigated their music, but have become somewhat obsessed with it, having just purchased the majority of their albums in the past week.
For some reason or another, many people (myself included) seem to overlook this group and their albums seem to linger in obscurity... a shame because they make some great, unique, rock and roll. And that is why I decided that it was well worth the wait to make one of their albums this month's feature. I've only been listening to this album (and this band) non-stop for the past week (or more) trying to collect my thoughts and write a fitting review.
The band is called the Screaming Trees, and back in the late 80s and early 90s they blended punk, pop, classic rock, psychedelia and mystic flavors to create what would evolve into the "Seattle Sound", aka grunge/alternative... whatever. Later on, their peers, bands like, oh I don't know... Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam would become massive successes and become known to music fans far and wide. Yet the Trees would only have one major single, and never would really break through. They would eventually disband in 2000 with each member going to pursue new things (vocalist Mark Lanegan is probably the most recognizable with a solo career and subsequent work with the Queens of the Stone Age), but they would leave behind some almost criminally overlooked albums, including the one I've chosen for this month's feature: Sweet Oblivion.
Maybe it's best to start with a little overview of what exactly struck me so much about the Tree's music, before really delving into the album. It's a pretty unique sound to my ears. Some might call it "Neo Psychedelia" because there's certainly a major late 60s â€“ 70s rock influence going on, sort of wrapped up in a punk/garage/hard rock exterior. They definitely have the roots of grunge, but at the same time, don't really associated with that genre at all because they have a lot more classic rock in sound. There is a unique progression from their early albums to their later ones as well, that really seems to foreshadow a lot of the grunge movement, but as a whole the Trees seem to craft their own brand of rock that is different. It's deep and sort of trippy and hypnotic, but also catchy, hard hitting and not nearly as dark/angry as some other "real grunge" bands (still dark, but not as depressing I guess is a good way to put it). I think their songs just... well rock... and are totally authentic, without falling into any particular stereotypes or clichÃ©s that come along with some other genres, or even the bands that would follow in their footsteps.
Definitely some great rock and roll and a band that I think deserves a little more love than they get.
Sweet Oblivion is the band's 6th and second to last album, released in 1992, but it's also one of their best (although I'm really liking just about everything they recorded). Starting off with what has become one of my favorite of their tracks, "Shadow of the Season" has a killer mystic flavored riff with plenty of rock and roll grit. Add in Mark Lanegan's trademark growl, with some psychedelic flair, and a haunting, and yet catchy, chorus and you've got one heck of a song. I'm especially partial to the pre chorus of this song because it has a great little progressive guitar riff that I like. Plenty of rock and roll energy, melodic moments and even a sweet couple of guitar leads that really work with the overall feel round everything out really well. And that's just the first track, but it was enough to hook me... this one just happens to be the first song I checked out and it inspired me to really delve deeper.
"Nearly Lost You" is a little more of a standard rock and roll song with a touch of garage rock energy, but also a great sing-along chorus and guitar lead... definitely a standout, maybe even single material (it was even released as part of a soundtrack that helped boost the popularity of some of their contemporaries), which explains why it was one of the band's signature tunes during their heyday. A great track for sure, but I think there are a few better ones on this album to be honest. The catchy almost rock and roll stomp of "Dollar Bill" is equally infectious and fun, while "More or Less" is a slow burning number with some screaming guitar melodies and leads as the song erupts in some massive grandiose moments. "Butterfly" is another one of my personal favorites from this album. It's just as upbeat, catchy and rockin' as either "Nearly Lost You" or "Dollar Bill", but with a touch more of a garage rock rough edge and an amazing harmonized chorus. It's got some killer wah guitar leads to top everything off as well... just a great song through and through.
The album continues with "For Celebrations Past" a lighter almost jangly rocker that's still got touches of mysticism throughout (really all these tracks do, it just lurks in the background and surprises you). The chorus is a touch heavier but really compliments the verses well. For some reason this track is one of the ones I most associate with the grunge sound, although not by much because it's still distinct and doesn't sound exactly like your "typical" 90s era, Seattle alternative. "The Secret Kind" comes back with another great guitar riff though and a strong, almost retro, hard rock feel with it's soaring chorus, searing guitar leads and driving beat... oh and lets not forget some massively epic drum work to really up the arena rock feel... this one's another personal favorite, and good proof that the Trees rock... if you needed such proof.
"Winter Song" is another more upbeat and catchy rocker. I'm especially fond of the lead guitar work in this one as the way it moves in the stereo image and the phrasing just screams 60s psychedelia, but it's a good song as a whole to be sure. Then we come to what just might be my favorite track from the album... it's a tough call, but "Troubled Times" is certainly in the running. Starting off as a slow burning number with lots of almost bluesy swagger, it chugs along before exploding in all it's arena rock glory. A great riff, killer chorus and overall driving beat make this one classic and larger than life without being over the top, overly heavy or betraying their garage/indie rock feel. "No One Knows" is pretty epic too, especially in the chorus which soars with Lanegan's gruff voice backed by simple, but effective backing vocals. The guitar lead is great in this one also, really pushing the song and taking everything to the next level.
"Julie Paradise" is another personal favorite that effectively closes a great album with a great explosive finale. It begins with a simple, uplifting little rock and roll riff and beat with some great vocals over top, but it too erupts into something more. This one is truly explosive with some great guitar riffs that are just massive. The leads over top of these rock riffs are just as powerful... little bursts of rock and roll fury that give this one that much more energy. This one even closes with a bit of screeching noise rock improvisation making it a fitting end to a great album.
So if all these tracks are so good, this begs the question: why didn't they really explode out of the Seattle scene like some of their compatriots?
It's a question that really perplexes me and is part of what amazes me about this band because I'm really digging their stuff and think that not only does it have a great underground indie rock feel, but should have done really well in the mainstream. Maybe it was the right sound, just the wrong time... maybe poor marketing, bad luck or simply the fact that it took the band another 4 years to return with their next album? Who knows, but I definitely think the Screaming Trees are proof that good music can go overlooked, and often times does...not that I really needed more proof of that, but someone might.
If this is the first you're hearing of this band, but you like alternative, hard rock, indie rock etc... I think you need to check them out. Their music seems to sit really well for me both within the grunge scene (right between Soundgarden and Pearl Jam) and the more modern indie scene (around bands like the Queens of the Stone Age and the Raconteurs...maybe? Although the Trees are less eclectic than both for the most part). And don't hesitate to pick up the rest of their albums either. Dust, the last one they recorded, is also a highly underrated classic, but the band's early ones are pretty great, just a little different. Mark Lanegan's solo work is pretty cool too, as is his collaborations with other people, so feel free to check out that stuff if you're interested.
So I guess, the conclusion is that I'm a fan of the Screaming Trees and Sweet Oblivion is the album that made me so. They, and this album, may have faded into obscurity for many casual rock fans, and maybe even everyone but the most dedicated fans of the grunge era, but they still made some great rock and roll.
Check out this album directly from Amazon here: Sweet Oblivion