Monday, February 4, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #224 - Screaming Trees – Dust (1996)

            Having spent pretty much all my formative years in the 1990s, a big part of my musical upbringing revolved around mainstream radio’s changing of the guard from glam metal to “grunge” (as it was referred to at the time, though it’s pretty much just classic rock nowadays). As a die-hard metal fan all through the ‘80s I resisted this shift at first, but even I was powerless to deny the allure of these incredible bands coming from the Pacific Northwest. Much of it was still extremely heavy, yet it somehow seemed more accessible, more like the garage bands that I was used to playing in. I mean, I loved metal, but let’s face it, nobody that I was playing with at 12 years old was going to be able to rip through a George Lynch guitar solo. So it wasn’t so hard to see why this new grunge flavor rocketed in popularity, leaving metal in its dust.
One of the more overlooked bands to come to prominence in this movement was Seattle’s Screaming Trees. Likely this is because they were coming from a background more concerned with blues and psychedelic rock and less focused on punk aesthetics than many of the other bands in that scene. However, they did have all the ingredients to be huge. A monolithic rhythm section, crushing, fuzzed-out guitar tone and a vocal delivery by one of the best vocalists in the business, one Mr. Mark Lanegan. By the time their seventh album (and third for a major label), Dust was released in 1996, they had gone through a lot as a band, from in-fighting and personnel changes to substance abuse and the loss of friends and contemporaries to such addictions.
These events were perhaps where Lanegan was coming from in his songwriting, as Dust explores a gothic sensibility more akin to his later solo work. Not that the Trees’ songs were ever all that sunny, but Dust seems to capture a darkness that had previously only been hinted at. The album’s opener, “Halo of Ashes,” for instance, kicks off with guitarist Gary Lee Connor’s jangly, Yardbirds-esque opening riff which is joined by a booming, tribal drum lead-in courtesy of drummer Barrett Martin. Lanegan’s lyrics come in, immediately exploring themes of mortality and defeat. The album’s first single, “All I Know” is an anthemic blues-rock staple that stands as one of the record’s highlights. Also worthy of mention is the sweet yet macabre ballad “Sworn and Broken” with a haunting organ solo by guest player Benmont Tench from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.
Production-wise, Dust is arguably the best-sounding record by the Trees. The band tapped George Drakoulias to produce. Known for his work with many American Recordings artists like the Black Crowes and the Jayhawks, Drakoulias’ finished product was a more polished, arena-ready sound than previous efforts. To top it off, Andy Wallace (of Nirvana’s Nevermind fame) was hired to master, further adding to the album’s sheen. Perhaps this was a last-ditch effort to cash in on the grunge trend and get the Trees onto bigger tours. Unfortunately, the album’s release came just a hair too late, and the grunge sound started to become less and less relevant in the subsequent years. The Trees took an extended hiatus after that, officially disbanding for good in 2000, making Dust their final record.
It’s truly baffling to me that Screaming Trees weren’t one of the biggest bands of the 1990s. They rose to prominence at the same time as the Nirvanas and Pearl Jams of the world, they were a huge part of the Seattle underground music scene since as early as the mid-1980s and their single “Nearly Lost You” introduced them to the mainstream via the same film soundtrack as other grunge behemoths of the day, Cameron Crowe’s Singles. With all the stars in alignment at the time, superstardom seemed inevitable for them and it just didn’t happen. While this is a real shame, it also set the stage for a very lucrative solo career for Lanegan, not to mention his being a sought-after commodity for guest spots. So maybe it’s all for the best. However, I implore anyone, especially Lanegan fans, to explore the Trees’ back catalog because it is all incredible. And Dust is a hell of a swansong.
-         Jonathan Eagle

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