'Last Words' captures the Screaming Trees' final chapter
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
By the late 1990s, Screaming Trees were growing weary as a unit, its members having been through years on the road, flying just below the surface of the mainstream only to be spotted when a gaze zipped past their more famous Seattle brethren.
Tensions and divirging musical aspirations were coming to a head; Joshua Homme, who would soon leave his post as second guitarist to form Queens of the Stone Age, reportedly threw his guitar down in disgust and left the sessions for their final album permanently, coaxing Lanegan to quit and move on as well.
Lanegan hung on a bit longer, and his imprint can be felt in more than just his distinct growl on Screaming Trees’ lost swan song, Last Words: The Final Recordings, culled from the band’s final sessions in 1998 and ’99. Where past records were scored by bigger guitars and faster tempos, the songs here feature Lanegan in a much lower voice than on 1992’s Sweet Oblivion, for example.
The songs themselves seem a bit more mournful than they had, a natural progression from some of the themes of their last properly released album, Dust. That album has stood as the band’s apex, a bittersweet document of a band reaching for new creative spaces after a decade together. That Dust served so long as the last Screaming Trees album seemed both fitting and cruel, not dissimilar to one-time labelmates Soundgarden.
The question had been half answered by Lanegan’s own solo work, which was always darker than any of the Screaming Trees’ work, production and instruments stripped away in favor of the depth of the room.
There’s a move away from the guitar-driven feel of their previous albums, a little closer to the material that Mark Lanegan had begun to explore in his solo work. But it’s certainly not a Lanegan album; the atmosphere here is much more indepted to the best of 1960s and ’70s rock, especially the psychedelic garage classics from the transition between those two decades.
The twist here, though, is the way they’ve taken that psychedelic feel and melded it with a shoegaze vibe that would sound at home on an album by Ride or My Bloody Valentine. In spots, such as on “Black Rose Way,” the guitars swirl in and out with the vocals, creating the same hypnotic vibe that those two bands perfected in their era. Ten years later, with the sessions for Last Words, Screaming Trees take a page out of another alternative playbook, merging it with their own powerful delivery, fronted by Lanegan’s booming baritone and framed by Barrett Martin’s Bonhamesque drums.
But as with the best of their work, there are dips and side paths, where the musicians give the songs room to breathe. Forshadowing Lanegan’s folk leanings on I’ll Take Care of You, “Reflections” is supported by simply structured acoustic guitars and soaring backing vocals, a peaceful touch that’s welcome amid the drive of the remainder of the album.
It underscores that while the band evolved and grew, and while they were drifting apart, they remained true to their music and the vision of the band. Screaming Trees staked out a position in a crowded and extremely talented scene. They burned out, their members moved on, but the music was always too good to be forgotten.
It’s nothing but a boon to the community, then, that these songs were finally given a proper release by Martin in 2011. It’s a thank-you note to the fans that supported the band for the better part of 15 years, and to those who discovered them years after their dissolution.
It’s also one final bittersweet reminder of what could have been.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com