Album Reviews

Screaming Trees: Dust: Expanded Edition (HNE Recordings)

Screaming Trees
Dust: Expanded Edition
HNE Recordings/Cherry Red

In 1996, “alternative rock” had fallen out of cultural favor. Its darker cousin, “grunge rock,” had seemingly died the minute that it was announced that its “spokesman,” Kurt Cobain, had been found dead in an apparent suicide. Suddenly, the music of Seattle—dark, heavy, hairy, and seeming indebted to heroin—was almost instantly shut out by the music world. Sure, the biggest names like Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots still carried on, but they soon found themselves quickly being pushed out of the spotlight. Bands like Green Day, Weezer, and Hootie & The Blowfish had much more cultural relevance; they were poppy, they were upbeat, they were fun.  

Screaming Trees, however, had never sat comfortably in the narrative of “grunge rock,” aside from the fact that they were one of the first bands of the era. Yet when they returned in 1996 with their album, Dust, something seemed quite futile about it; as they’d not been major “grunge” stars, one wondered who would hear it, as radio and the press had moved on from such dark, dank, weird bands. A shame, really, as Dusk was an album that was a mature, sophisticated record that fulfilled the promise of their previous album, Sweet Oblivion, highlighting the band’s rare talent and knack for writing complex, deep, and thought-provoking rock music.

In 1994, after two years of relentless, endless touring behind Sweet Oblivion, the band set about to record its follow-up with Don Fleming. Yet when the band listened to the results, they were less than impressed; they felt the songs were weak, not representative of the band’s high quality output, and rather generic. Ultimately, they scrapped most of that album to begin anew. Not that they completely scrapped the material, though; they would use several of the songs as b-sides, and when one listens to “rejects” such as “Darkness Darkness” and “Paperback Bible,” one senses that perhaps they were a bit myopic in their feelings; both songs are of the same high quality as both Sweet Oblivion and Dust, and would have fit nicely on the latter.

After regrouping, they began again with producer George Drakoulias, who helped them focus their sound into one that was both instantly accessible while remaining distinctive and true to their identity. Dust contains some of their catchiest songs, as “All I Know” and “Make My Mind” are all groove and sing-along stadium anthems just begging for audience participation. Yet they haven’t abandoned their darker side; “Halo Of Ashes,” “Sworn And Broken,” and “Witness” find frontman Mark Lanegan channeling wrestling with the same evil forces found on earlier Screaming Trees records, while “Traveler” and “Gospel Plow” find him mining the gospel/soul/folk blend he had explored on his solo albums. Dust was a well-rounded, superbly produced album that broke free from the “grunge” tag, showing that there was more to them than the hyped, exploited, and abandoned Seattle sound.

Dust was borne out of the realization that the band could do better, and it shines as a result. Sadly, that push for perfection also gives the record an oddly finalistic feel, a band knowing it has a chance to make a final statement, and doing the best they can. The band would attempt to record a follow-up after finishing a grueling two year touring cycle for Dust; unsatisfied with the results, they soon came to the decision to disband. (Those recordings were released a few years ago, and while the songs are good, they do sort of prove that the band’s instincts were correct.) Lanegan would go on to a productive, rewarding, and satisfying solo career, building his foundation on the superb legacy based upon Screaming Trees’ high-caliber discography. Dust may have closed this chapter of his life, but thankfully his story has yet to end.

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