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Screaming Trees
Ocean Of Confusion

Any list of great "lost" bands ought to have Screaming Trees somewhere near the top. Fusing edgy, hardcore-inspired rock with swirling, '60s-influenced psychedelia, the band, originally from Washington State, signed to a major label after releasing four albums in the mid to late 1980s.

Over the course of three more albums during the first half of the 1990s, Screaming Trees honed their sound into a tight but edgy conflation of bludgeoning force and raw emotion, absorbing and re-shaping classic rock to fit their own needs. Singer Mark Lanegan evolved into a charismatic, soulful vocalist, and the band demonstrated its ability to work irresistible hooks into the raw roots of its sound. But unhappily Screaming Trees never achieved the kind of success they deserved: despite being in the right place at the right time to ride the immediate post-Nevermind wave of interest in all things flannel-shirted and noisy from the American Northwest, the band lost crucial momentum through persistent internecine strife and substance abuse, releasing a highly praised swan song, Dust, in 1996, and finally calling it a day following a reunion one-off gig four years later.

Any compilation is fraught with pitfalls: what to include, what to exclude, what kind of running order, etc., but Ocean of Confusion largely gets it right, if sometimes only by default due to the overall consistency of the band's material. Tracing a chronological progression, it begins with a 1990 EP track "Who Lies in Darkness," then moves on through a selection of four tracks from 1991's Uncle Anesthesia, which more or less captures the band's transitional sound of the time — retaining their bludgeoning psychedelia but tempering its rough edges with more considered arrangements. Even when the songs don't quite come off, they're rescued by the rolling momentum of the band's performance in general and by Gary Lee Connor's inventive guitar playing in particular, combining meaty, fuzzy riffs with spiraling but concise psychedelic solos. The seven songs lifted from 1992's Sweet Oblivion, however, represent the real meat of the matter. "Shadow of the Season" simply sounds awesome, its staccato-riff intro preceding a massive, rock-solid rhythm and Lanegan's deep, wounded growl of a vocal. Here the band's scrappier, fuzzed-up past is fused with timeless, monolithic rock, yielding triumphant results: the seismic shuffle of "Nearly Lost You" was also featured on the "Singles" soundtrack and was the closest the band came to a hit, while "Dollar Bill" sounds like Tim Rose fronting Hüsker Dü, with Lanegan's hoarse, tender vocals rising to an anguished peak to meet Lee Connor's massive guitar climax. "ESK," a contemporaneous non-album B side, is also included, though it's not quite up to the standard of the other Sweet Oblivion tracks.

Two previously unreleased songs from an aborted follow-up album session with Don Fleming, "Watchpocket Blues" and "Paperback Bible," fill in the chronology and are attractive bait for fans who might otherwise already have all this material. But they sound a bit vague, and Lanegan's voice is particularly strained, while the music itself comes over as a rather ordinary derivation of Zeppelinesque riffing. Fortunately the band came back from a lengthy hiatus with Dust in 1996. The sound was more polished and the hooks more evident, but although the album received copious critical appraisal at the time, here its songs sound relatively subdued. Two of the five songs from Dust collected here are ballads, and there's a sense that this emphasis is an attempt to align these latter-day Trees songs more closely with Lanegan's solo career, something echoed in the accompanying sleeve notes. But it means Ocean of Confusion ends on a quieter note than it perhaps should. Certainly the ode to dissolution that is "Dying Days" sounds suitably fired up, but the swathes of Mellotron bubbling up all over "The Traveler" are, to my mind, too ornamental, and an anticlimactic note on which to finish.

Ocean of Confusion is a reasonable primer, particularly if combined with SST's Anthology of the band's earlier work. But to experience Screaming Trees in their prime, listeners are urged to get hold of a copy of Sweet Oblivion, and turn up the volume.

by Tom Ridge

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