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Screaming Trees - "Sweet Oblivion" review

Poster: Hank @ Fri Jun 10, 2011 4:20 pm

Screaming Trees - "Sweet Oblivion"

Screaming Trees were part of the first crop of "grunge / alternative" acts that emerged in the early '90s. They never achieved the big-time success of their buddies Soundgarden or Smashing Pumpkins -- today, they're best remembered for their minor hit single from the "Singles" soundtrack, "I Nearly Lost You," and for having been the launching pad for the career of Mark Lanegan, one of the greatest rock singers ever to howl into a microphone.

Lanegan later went on to sing with Queens of the Stone Age and Martina Topley-Bird after releasing a bunch of brilliant solo records. But what about the music of Screaming Trees, who seem damned to spend eternity as a grimy footnote in pop history?

One thing's for sure : if you haven't listened to them since you were a whippersnapper, their debut LP "Sweet Oblivion" will transport you back to the era of goatees and ripped-up Levi's Silver Tabs with no delay. Unlike "Nevermind," which has a crispy shiny sheen left over from 80s production values, or "Badmotorfinger," which is basically a heavy metal album and sounds like it, "Sweet Oblivion" is 100% pure unadulterated 90s grunge rock. The rhythm guitars are ragged like an acne-ridden Neil Young, the lead guitars are ridiculously over-distorted, and the drums are filled with cymbal crashes and rolls. This record sounds like the Platonic ideal of a "garage band." .

The big difference between what I call proper grunge music (Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam) and the numerous other bands that got lumped in with grunge (Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Tad) is that the former are fundamentally Beatles / Pink Floyd / REM influenced slop-rock bands with a 70s feel, whereas the latter are straight metal bands whose managers convinced to start doing photo shoots in flannel shirts. Grunge, being a singer-songwriter tradition, is usually based on chord changes, while metal is based on riffs.

There is no way that you'd mistake "Sweet Oblivion" for a metal record. This is song-oriented, strummy, moody capital-"R" Rock that has no interest in getting you to headbang or commit Satanic atrocities. One of the things that really strikes the listener about the sound is that its guitars are authentically sloppy. None of that Bob Rock / Butch Vig stuff that's been recorded on the 37th take and run through every piece of studio trickery available. These tracks are really played with raw tone and a "whatever" attention to precision. This means that "Sweet Oblivion" perfectly captures its era -- no trait defines the early 90s more than bored apathy.

Apart from the hit, which is by far the catchiest tune on this grimacing mopefest, the closer "Julie Paradise" is my favorite cut. Set to a hard-swinging drum gallop, this tune hits all the right buttons with its exuberant guitar squeals and Lanegan's saxophone-like voice gruffling out lines like "Something's going wrong in my mind!" No kidding, Mark!

Classic teen-angst anthem "Shadow of the Season" has a sinister cast, with Lanegan grasping for reasons not to off himself.

"Troubled Times" is pretty cool too, with a very typical 90s fatback beat and a melody line that is reminiscent of "I Nearly Lost You" and was also ripped off by second-wave grunge poseurs Seven Mary Three.

We even get the requisite introspective ballad in 6/8 time, "No One Knows."

Most of the tunes here lope along at a slowish tempo, so to more fully externalize the band's inner turmoil. The way I feel about this really illustrates how my tastes have changed in the 20 years since this record dropped. These days, I prefer my tunes to be either toe-tappingly fast, or phelgmatically slow. This whole mid-tempo trip really throws me for a loop (or a lack of one, am I right?). Of these tunes, only "More or Less" is taken at what I'd call a Sabbath tempo, "Butterfly" and "Julie Paradise" are the only fast songs, and most of the melodies are meandering in service to the lyrics. But I can still get in touch with my preteen self to know that this is the still ultimate soundtrack to an afternoon closed up in one's room, posters covering all walls, scratching out confused and angry words on the pages of a Mead composition book.

The bottom line on "Sweet Oblivion" is that it's fundamentally mood music for self-conscious, doubt-ridden teenagers and college kids. And it's pretty glorious. Even if you didn't grow up in the 90s, Lanegan's vocals, gold drowned in nicotine, are worth the price of admission. But don't put it on thinking that you're going to get a shred of irony or smirking. This music is sincere enough to bring the Great Pumpkin to the pumpkin patch.

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