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Sunday, July 10, 2011

26. Screaming Trees: Sweet Oblivion

No doubt the early 1990s will forever be known as "The Grunge Years" thanks to the commercial success of Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten. Those releases sparked an international interest in a musical style that had gone unnoticed (outside of the Pacific NW) prior to 1991. The following year, the movie Singles and its accompanying top ten soundtrack exposed the world to even more artists of the genre. Seattle bands Alice In Chains and Soundgarden, as well as Smashing Pumpkins (who were Chicago-based, but were desperately searching for a Seattle apartment...just kidding) all cashed in on the newfound success. Perhaps the best band of the lot never achieved the level of success of their aforementioned contemporaries. Seattle's Screaming Trees produced one of the greatest albums of the time, but were unable to gain momentum and build upon it.

In 1992, Screaming Trees released their sixth (that's right, sixth) studio album, Sweet Oblivion. While newbies such as Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana, and Smashing Pumpkins were just starting to wear Pull-Ups, bands like Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, The U-Men, and The Melvins had been around for years. Screaming Trees had worked with smaller labels (Sub Pop and SST) for their first four releases from 1986-1989. Their fifth release in 1991, Uncle Anesthesia, marked their major label debut. That album received some radio airtime, however Sweet Oblivion was the album that was to put them over the top. It did make them stars, to some extent, but bad timing and infighting hurt them and they lacked the staying power of their peers.

Sweet Oblivion opens with the dark "Shadow Of The Season". (Sidenote: My wife told me to post a light, summer-appropriate album, but I wanted an album from the 1990s, and the 90s just didn't go there for me. Seems like all my favorite music from the 90s was dark and depressing. Was I unhappy throughout the 90s? If anyone can remember, please let me know.) The 1970's psychedelic, classic rock influence hits you immediately with force. Once Mark Lanegan's gravelly, whiskey-riddled voice kicks in, you realize this band's been through the ringer and has stories to tell..."The hour's ended can't you see/There is no way now to be free/In the shadow of the season/Without a reason to carry on..." Following the excellent lead of "Shadow..." is the cut from the Singles soundtrack, "Nearly Lost You". It's definitely at the top of the heap here. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to this track over the years. It received more radio/MTV time than any other Trees song, and should have been the springboard to bigger and better things for the band. I haven't been able to confirm it, but I believe the album was released just months before the Singles soundtrack, which meant there wasn't the anticipation for a new Screaming Trees release for potential fans...bad timing hurt sales.

Other standout tracks include the softer hit "Dollar Bill" with its sweet acoustic verses building to hard rock choruses, "Butterfly", and "Julie Paradise" (also using the crescendo tactic, building to a rousing conclusion). Truthfully, the album is strong all the way through. Each track stands tall from the thick and fuzzy "More Or Less" to the bouncy "For Celebrations Past". The draw for Screaming Trees is Mark Lanegan. His voice is a gravel road at it's best...tightly packed and smooth. If you have a difficult time reaching high notes...he invites you to sing with him. It's a voice...deep and guttural, yet as silky as any you've heard.

I mentioned infighting, and it prevented the Trees from releasing a follow-up album until 1996's Dust. Whatever momentum they'd built with Sweet Oblivion went out the window when all that time passed. The tension between band members was present in October of 1993 when I saw them perform at LaLuna in Portland. A great show was cut a bit short when Lanegan stormed off the stage, for some reason, in mid song, while the rest of the band extended the now instrumental version of the song (can't remember which) waiting to see if he'd return...never did...still loved the show though, and the opening band Flop was terrific.

Sweet Oblivion is the best of an overall body of work superior to that of many other more commercially successful "grunge" bands of the time. Here's the video for "Nearly Lost You" capitalizing on the exposure from Singles, and a live version of "Dollar Bill" from the BBC Late Show in 1993.

P.S. Should also mention that an unreleased album recorded in 1998/1999 will finally see the light of day. Titled Last Words: The Final Recordings it should be available digitally on August 2nd...with CD and vinyl release in the next few months. Unfortunately, they have squelched any talk of a reunion.

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