Thursday, August 18, 2011

Screaming Trees - Last Words: The Final Recordings

The Screaming Trees have a "new" album out. Last Words: The Final Recordings documents some recently mixed demos that the band recorded in 2000 while looking for a new record deal. That new deal never materialized, the band broke up, and the recordings sat on the shelf for eleven years until former Trees drummer Barrett Martin and producer Jack Endino mixed the songs this year. Martin has released the album through his own Sunyata Records label. At the moment the album is only available as a digital download, but CD and LP releases are reportedly in the works. It's currently available for the low, low price of $4.99 at Amazon, and if you don't buy it I'll never forgive you.

I first became aware of this release because my buddy Adam forwarded me a middling review of the album from Pitchfork. Typically, if the dudes at Pitchfork are lukewarm on something it turns out I love it, and this album is no exception. I suspect that if the Trees had been a big influence on The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, Animal Collective, or best of all, Kanye West, their music might sound more relevant to Pitchfork tuned ears. But the Trees did something that is absolutely unforgivable from the perspective of your typical Pitchfork reviewer; they rocked. Righteously. And for some people that is just an inherently uncool thing to do.

The Screaming Trees did not create clever deconstructions of popular song forms, instead they embraced heavy, psychedelic rock, and pushed their music to its absolute limits while working squarely within the rock aesthetic. If that does not sound intellectual enough for you, maybe the Screaming Trees are not your kind of band. Personally, I love them, and I think this new album can stand proudly alongside Buzz Factory and Sweet Oblivion as one of the finest of their career.

You'll have to forgive my enthusiasm. I may be a little biased. I watched the Screaming Trees play to an audience of 12 people at a crummy club in Harrisburg, PA back in 1991. (At least four of the people in attendance that night arrived in my car.) If the Trees were disappointed with the turnout, you would never have known it from their performance. It sounded like they made up their minds that even if there were only 12 people in the audience, those 12 paying fans deserved to have their worlds' rocked just as surely as if there were thousands in the club. A few nights later I saw them perform a sold-out show at the old 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., and while they were again fantastic, I think they might have actually rocked harder that night in Harrisburg.

What does that mean? Maybe nothing, but I just like to tell the story because it gives you an idea of what a great, totally committed band the Screaming Trees were.

Most of the other reviews I've read of Last Words have been positive, although they invariably criticize the "warts and all" sound quality. Personally, I think this album sounds great. Yes, it's a touch murkier sounding than their Epic recordings, but it sounds cleaner than anything they released for SST or Sub-Pop. That's more than good enough for me. The album lacks the distracting little production flourishes that producer George Drakoulias brought to their final Epic album, Dust, but to my ears that is a good thing. It's long been my opinion that bands are far more likely to ruin an album through over-production than by leaving things a little on the raw side.

I have a simple criteria for whether an album sounds good or bad. If you constantly find yourself wanting to turn the volume down, you have a bad sounding album. I don't care about clarity, or subtle layering of textures, if my impulse is to turn the volume down, there is something wrong. By contrast, if you constantly find yourself adjusting the volume upwards, you have a good sounding album. By that standard, Last Words is a great sounding album. Every time I play it, I keep cranking the volume.

Nearly as important as the crankability factor, Last Words does not sound like a collection of random demos and left-overs, but plays start-to-finish like an honest-to-goodness album, with subtle shifts in tempo and mood. The songs are uniformly excellent, and Mark Lanegan's singing never sounded better. He had four solo albums under his belt at the time of these recordings, and the added depth of feeling he brings to the material is evident on such songs as "Ash Grey Sunday," "Revelator," and "Black Rose Way." Likewise, Van Connor's guitar playing sounds much less restrained and mannered than it had on 1996's Dust. Barrett Martin's drumming is well-served by the mix, and (as always) is incredibly engaging and propulsive. Meanwhile bassist Gary Lee Connor gets in some catchy bass patterns as well as helping keep things grounded. In addition, there are guest spots from Peter Buck and Josh Homme that thankfully never get in the way of the group dynamic. The Screaming Trees may have been nearing the end of their storied career, but Last Words does not sound like a dying gasp from an artistically spent force. If anything it sounds more vital in 2011 than it might have had it been released in 2000.

I really cannot recommend this album highly enough. I know this "review" is little more than fanboy drivel, but I am a big believer in not pretending to be "objective" about subjects that one's life experience makes it impossible to be objective about.

**UPDATE: For those who still love shiny silver discs, the CD now is available for pre-order from Sunyata Records.


Anonymous said...

Hallelujah, thank you so much for calling out the hipsters at Pitchfork for the oh-so-precious douchebags they are.

Pete Bilderback said...

I appreciate the support, but I hope that's not how most people interpreted my remarks. It's not the way I intended them to come across anyway.

I'd just say the Pitchfork staff approaches things from a different perspective than me. I think that's fine.

Doug said...

I literally just downloaded it minutes before I read this post. Without knowing this post was about it at the time.

Weird? I think not.

Doug said...

Oh, Last Words is $4.90 on eMusic, if one has a subscription there.

(I won't digress to seeing the Trees ca '93 when they were roped into a tour with Columbia label-mates Spin Doctors and Soul Asylum. I think I was the only one paying attention during their set. Which started while it was still daylight out.)

(I will digress with a completely unrelated note about this recent post of mine where I talk way too much about a set of mix tapes I made in '95, which, if you run out of things to read, may be of extremely modest interest.)

Pete Bilderback said...

Great post Doug...I hope others read it.

I think Last Words is back up to $7.99 on Amazon, so $4.90 at eMusic is a good deal. My eMusic account is currently on hold.