Screaming Trees

Last Words: The Final Recordings

Rating: 3.3/5.0

Label: Sunyata

Though I was only a suburban rock ‘n’ roll snob on the cusp of fully engorged adult snobbery when the Screaming Trees announced their inevitable break-up in 2000, I can’t say I remembered a whole lot of tears shed for the foursome. Always the bridesmaids and never the brides in the mainstream’s rush to grunge matrimony, the Trees – no. five in line behind Kurt, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice – found their breakthrough unattainable since, as I see it, they always stood apart from the rest of Seattle’s grunge offerings. This was, in part, because the origins of singer Mark Lanegan, guitarist Gary Lee Conner, bassist Van Conner and initial drummer Mark Pickerel lie in the Central Washington city of Ellensburg, where four dudes got together to play as the result of no one else digging on the same music in their high school. The Cascades form a pretty big barrier between Puget Sound and a town like Ellensburg, so whatever Sabbath-Black Flag trip the Seattle dudes were on wasn’t exactly the same as what the Conners, et. all were listening to. So, the Screaming Trees sound was firmly rooted in roots rock, late-’60s garage-psych, Hendrix, Love and the Byrds, which is to say that the Trees’ sound was perhaps never aggressive enough, not enough of a reaction against or to mainstream rock ‘n’ roll as In Utero was.

Instead, the Trees were refining and updating what came before. In the end, with their final LP Dust in 1996, the band managed to put out a slept-on album that, to these ears 15 years later, sounds like the quintessential ’90s radio rock record. “Halo of Ashes” with its Eastern flourishes, “All I Know” and “Dying Days” with their bulletproof hooks and the textbook-bittersweet “Sworn and Broken” deserve to be on American radio go-to “modern rock” playlists, certainly alongside Pearl Jam’s “Wishlist” or the Chili Peppers’ “Aeroplane.” I guess the silver lining is that you have Dust, a record full of chestnuts unsullied by ClearChannel (congrats). In ’98 and ’99, long after the grunge bird had flown, the Trees reunited following Lanegan’s work on and tour for his great third solo effort, Scraps at Midnight to record an album’s worth of songs with the intention of shopping them to labels. No one came calling; Prodigy and Atari Teenage Riot were instead labels’ ideas of worthy releases, so following a show at Seattle’s Experience Music Project museum, the Trees called it a day.

Over 10 years later, drummer Barrett Martin along with producer Jack Endino gussied up those tracks for the release of Last Words: The Final Recordings. Now, for any grungeheads awaiting this as some lost Basement Tapes-kinda indelible classic, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, Last Words comes on as a familiar reminder of what the Trees were about; Lanegan’s further-darkening pipes hovering above both Gary Lee Conner’s kaleidoscopic stompbox tones and his backing vocals with brother Van on a set of songs that run the gamut of their influences.

Last Words‘ songs do seem like a band that was reaching the end of their time; none of the songs stand out, particularly (see Dust, again), though they have their moments. Opener “Ash Gray Sunday” is as tuneful and fleet as anything the Smithereens ever did – with 300% more gravitas. “Revelator” features the kind of winsome, soaring alterna-rock chorus that Conner was so good at writing (and singing), while the squirming “Crawlspace” (featuring touring rhythm guitarist and Seattlite for a minute Josh Homme) predicts the kind of twisted blues that Lanegan would explore five years later on his own Bubblegum. “Reflections” is a nice, folky ballad, offering another in a series of desolate, damning one-liners Lanegan has repeatedly tossed off though they were just ash from his cigarette; “Don’tcha pass me by,” he warns, or meekly pleads. “Anita Grey” is harder-hitting update on the kind of thing Arthur Lee was doing on the first Love record and it’s always welcome to hear Love bubble up in the ether.

The final song – the title track, naturally – may as well be fitting last words. There’s the calculated clatter of Martin, the sweet backing vocals of the Conners, Gary Lee’s unruly wah and Lanegan cooly musing on his, “…last words/ Tak[ing] away the breath [he] hold[s] inside.Last Words may not be the record to win over a new generation of Doc Marten-wearing miscreants. Instead, it’s a chance for folks who thought this band always had another one in ’em to make peace with their dissolution. While not mindblowing, it’s a comfortable 10 songs to put on, their sound as familiar and well-worn as the Superunknown shirt folded in the drawer sitting behind me.

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