Sound — 9
The Screaming Trees were a largely overlooked band that was part of the legendary early 90s Seattle music movement, grunge. Despite actually being among the pioneers of the movement, they never attained the mainstream success of many other Seattle bands (Pearl Jam and Nirvana in particular). Fronted by Mark Lanegan, later of Queens of the Stoneage as well as a solo artist in his own right, with a huge number of side-projects and guest slots under his belt, the band was formed by brothers Gary Lee (guitars) and Van (bass) Conner, with their high school-friend Martin Pickerel on drums. Lanegan was a former high school quarterback, now a juvenile delinquent and serious stoner. After 'Uncle Anesthesia', their major-label debut, Pickerel quit due to the insane band in-fighting which often saw them coming to blows with one another, and was replaced by Barret Martin. This album, 'Ocean of Confusion', is a compilation designed to take in the band's major label career, from 'Uncle Anesthesia', their debut on the Epic label, to 'Dirt' their final release. Since this spans a six year period in which the band repeatedly broke up, got back together, had various side projects, fired their drummer (which seems to be a grunge tradition), got through several different producers (including Chris Cornell of Soundgarden) and, in the case of lead vocalist Mark Lanegan, nearly died a couple of times, the sound is, understandably, a little varied. The album starts off sounding dark, with the fairly lo-fi production that characterises the punk that was a powerful influence on the band. This theme continues through the 'Uncle Anesthesia' era, with the production quality being upped slightly when the first song from 'Sweet Oblivion', 'Shadow of the Season', kicks in. 'Sweet Oblivion' was, as the liner notes testify "virtually a concept album about the bliss of self-annhilation[sic]", as is summed up in the chorus to 'Shadow of the Season' "Oh, Sweet Oblivion, feels alright". The tracks from 'Sweet Oblivion' represent an increasing sophistication in the music and lyrics as well as the production. After the last track from this era, 'Butterfly', come three songs apparently planned for a release scrapped by Epic for not being commerically viable. despite this, these tracks are quite good, although they do lack the spark of much of the album. The exceptional love song 'Make My Mind' (which isn't as wussy as you'd expect from a love song, instead continuing the album's generally hard-edged feel) kicks off the final section of the album, the tracks taken off 'Dust'. 'Dust' shows an obvious leap in the style of the band, with much more overdubbing than previously, and various other musicians brought in to add backing vocals, keyboards and cello (judge for yourself whether this is a good or bad thing). The lyrics also take a turn, moving away from the drug-induced poetry previously found in their work to love songs and songs about the deaths of old friends. Gary Lee Conner's guitar work deserves particular mentione, as it is great throughout, far more 'classic rock' in style than other grunge guitarists. Every solo he plays is insanely catchy and well-thought out.
Lyrics — 9
Mark Lanegan is possibly the greatest hard rock singer of all time. If you're tired of male sopranos singing in falsettos all the time but hate the camp throaty screaming of modern metal, the Mark Lanegan's genuinely impassioned foreboding baritone, formed from years of alcoholism and nicotine addiction, is for you. Also, if you are a baritone (as I am), ta-dah! Heres a band you can finally sing to! His lyrics, also, are brilliant, whether he's talking about his love of drugs, women, or god, there's a compassion and understanding in his gravel voiced vocal stylings that you won't often find anywhere else.
Overall Impression — 9
I usually find compilation albums irritating, but this album keeps drawing me back, largely because of the very sensible decision on behalf of the compilers to arrange the tracks in chronological order, so that the listener hears the band's years of development summed up in just over 70 minutes. I find it almost impossible to say which songs are my favourite, but if I was forced I'd say 'Shadow of the Season' and 'Make My Mind', because I've mentioned them both already so I won't have to explain them again. The album is amazing throughout, never hitting a dull note and showcasing exactly why it's so criminally unfair that the Screaming Trees are almost completely overlooked by the mainstream. Buy it, then buy everything else they've done; I know I will.