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Screaming Trees Biography

Last updated: 05/13/2010 12:00:00 PM

Even on first appearance, Screaming Trees had more sense of history, and a load more talent, than the welter of grunge-styled bands formed in the Seattle/Washington area in the mid-1980s. And it's a promise they at last fulfilled with their 1996 masterpiece, Dust.

The group was the creation of heavyweight brothers Gary Lee (guitar) and Van Conner (bass) who found splendid accompaniment in Mark Lanegan (vocals) and Mark Pickerel (drums). At the outset their songs were bar-room travelogues on life and love in the slow lane of rural Ellensburg, redolent of both 70s rock and 60s psychedelia, though their initial musical platform was pure punk rock.

After an inconclusive debut release, Clairvoyance (1986), Screaming Trees switched to SST Records for a trio of releases beginning with Even If And Especially When (1987). Unafraid of introspection, this set the scene for the rest of their 80s output, with songs that dripped with Doors-like grooves and vivid scenarios conveyed menacingly by Lanegan's taught, emphatic delivery. Invisible Lantern (1988) and Buzz Factory (1989) saw a growing fan base, without ever breaking out of the domestic alternative-rock ghetto. It was followed by Change Has Come EP (1990) for Sub Pop - but in truth Screaming Trees were never a 'Seattle Band', only playing that city once or twice a year.

Uncle Anesthesia (1991), the Trees first effort for a major label - Epic - was produced by Terry Date and Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, but the results never really meshed. The incohesion was perhaps in part due to the impending departure of Mark Pickerel who was replaced by Barrett Martin from Skin Yard. However, the lack of creative impetus might also have had something to do with numerous extracurricular activities during this period. Lanegan, having relocated to Seattle while his bandmates stayed 'Up in the mountains in Ellensburg', released an intense solo release for Sub Pop, The Winding Sheet. It included a cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" which Kurt Cobain (who had contributed to the release) would later reprise on Nirvana's UNPLUGGED Session. The Winding Sheet somewhat overshadowed the Conner brothers' outings: Gary Lee with Purple Outside (Mystery Lane) and Van with Solomon Grundy (Solomon Grundy).

Back together as a band, and with the time out seeming to have revitalised their creative juices, Screaming Trees recorded Sweet Oblivion (1992), a much more distinctive set - subdued, less eager to please, yet far more accessible than anything preceding it.

With Dust (1996), however, everything seemed to have come together. Recorded after two years of abortive Sessions, this was the record fans feared the Trees would never make: a perfect synthesis of their many influences, with splashes of Byrds and Hendrix-style guitar, and use of sitars and tablas, produced with unerring clarity by George Drakoulias. Lanegan was on top vocal form, the lyrics (sin, redemption, cold turkey) perfect in their restraint; the guitars and instrumentation wild.

It was, simply, the best thing out of Washington State in years. Since In Utero, to be precise. Not that anyone can continue to tag the Trees as grunge, they plough far too wide a furrow.