Screaming Trees Where do you stand when it's all over,
Washed from the earth and down to the sea?
Do you lie in a bed of roses?
Are you still aware?
Guess that you don't care about it now.

— Screaming Trees,
"Bed of Roses"

Screaming Trees AlbumsMark Lanegan Albums

Screaming Trees were my primary connection to the Seattle "grunge scene" of the 1990s, although the band never really fit comfortably in that category, or any other. Hailing from the town of Ellensurg, Washington, the Trees were more into '60s psychedelia than the teenage neo-punk angst thing, but geography and the prejudices of the media conspired to inextricably bind them up with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and the rest of the flannel-clad gang. They never found huge success, and they were too weird-looking to adorn many magazine covers (or too average-looking, depending on your point of view). The members of the band reportedly hated each other, and temporary replacement bandmates came in and out like clockwork until they disbanded after their final album in 1996. But in their short and tempestuous career together, Screaming Trees produced an outstanding body of work that continues to delight and inspire.

The core members of the band from their start in 1985 were vocalist Mark Lanegan and brothers Gary Lee Conner on guitar and Van Conner on bass. Original drummer Mark Pickerel was permanently replaced by Barrett Martin in 1991. I discovered the Trees when they toured as the opening act for fIREHOSE around 1988 and 1989. At the end of the first show where I saw them, I collected some discarded guitar strings from the stage, excitedly thinking they belonged to Ed fROMOHIO. Later I was disappointed to realize that they probably came from the Screaming Trees guy. I also collected a Screaming Trees set list written in Sharpie on a paper plate. These weren't very interesting mementos at the time, but for some reason I hung onto them and it's cool to still have them today.

What I most recall about my first impression of Screaming Trees was the awesome spectacle of the two shaggy-headed, 300-pound Conner brothers rocking it out. Van was like a lumbering sasquatch thumping his bass, which looked miniature compared to his mighty bulk, while Lee was a behemoth whirling dervish rampaging around the stage and frequently into the crowd. I recall being concerned that his stagediving could seriously injure gig-goers of a slighter build. Both of the Conners had long Joey Ramone/Cousin It hair hanging down over their faces, indicating their ability to play their guitars by touch alone. It was really the novelty "crazy fat guy" appeal that first made me take interest in the band, and I christened them the masters of lard rock. About the second or third time I saw the band with fIREHOSE, they had a chick playing bass, evidence of their perennial in-fighting that I would later learn about. It was quite disappointing to witness only one of the cool fat guys in action at that gig.

My first Screaming Trees album was 1989's Buzz Factory. Hearing their excellent studio recordings turned the focus of my appreciation from the bombastic Conner brothers to the talented Mark Lanegan. In the live shows, Lanegan's voice was mostly drowned out by the marvelous din of the Lee's wah-wah pedal -- he seemed like your basic ordinary indie-rock singer, distinguished only for being a bit on the raspy side. On CD, I could appreciate how truly rich and powerful his singing is. Lanegan is gifted with a tremendous dynamic range, from delicate melodies in his natural cigarette-accented bass to furiously intense, well, screaming. While Paul Weller remains my all-around favorite musical artist, I would probably have to admit that Mark Lanegan exceeds him as the best vocalist around today.

The Screaming Trees sound, so distinctive from their peers in the so-called grunge community, was heavily influenced by classic psychedelic rock, most notably Cream, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. On their earliest recordings you can hear Lanegan doing a number of outright Jim Morrison impersonations. But it was the Conner brothers who were most obsessed with the trappings of psychedelia. It's easy to identify the divergent contributions to the Screaming Trees canon: all the song titles and lyrical content involving the universe, other dimensions, time travel, magic light machines, or infinite lines of swirling colors would have originated from the trippy minds of Lee and Van. On the other hand, anything to do with Jesus, whiskey, cigarettes, dark despairing regrets and lost souls desperate for salvation was purely Lanegan's territory. The bandmates' differences in songwriting directions have been cited as a primary source of the friction that ultimately led to their breakup. That, along with the Conners' sibling rivalry and way too much alcohol.

With most of my favorite musical performers, there is one distinct album that stands out as the best. That's not the case with Screaming Trees. The consistent quality of their body of work is astounding, especially considering their volatile history. They started strong and finished strong, and it's probably for the best that they broke up when they did. My favorite way to listen Screaming Trees is to put their entire catalog on shuffle in iTunes or on my iPod, and I'll always get a great song. I can't pick one favorite album, but I'd say the best two are Buzz Factory, a sentimental choice as my first Trees record, and Uncle Anesthesia, which I would say is all-around their most epic-sounding work. And coincidentally, it was their first release for Epic Records. The Trees recorded for the stalwart indie label SST prior to 1991, and when they went looking for a major-label deal, legend has it that one label offered to sign them but on the condition that they would "lose one of the fat guys." Curse the music industry for failing to recognize the potential goldmine of lard rock. Of course, that incident occurred just before Nirvana took over the world. Once grunge was the rage, a band with eight fat guys and a trained grizzly bear could easily get signed if they were from anywhere in the Pacific northwest region.

Sadly, Screaming Trees got mostly overlooked throughout the Seattle explosion, scoring only a couple of minor hits in "Nearly Lost You" and "All I Know" before they decided to call it a day. All the band members were involved in side projects even while the Trees were still together, and these have evolved into full-time pursuits.

Mark Lanegan has released a string of critically praised solo albums which now rival, if not surpass, the Screaming Trees' body of work in both quantity and quality. For his first several releases Lanegan pursued a quieter, more acoustic sound, shaped by guitarist Mike Johnson, as if in defiant contrast with the raucous noise of his old band. Lanegan eventually returned to heavy rock as a part-time member of Queens of the Stone Age, an experience that apparently inspired him to record his intense Bubblegum album in 2004. Proving his endless versatility, he next turned around with a beautifully delicate collaboration with former Belle & Sebastian vocalist Isobel Campbell, which sounds like a series of duets between a demon and an angel. Lee Conner has been regrettably missing in action in recent years, while Van has found modest success as leader of the psychedelic metal band Valis, whose name is a Philip K. Dick reference meaning "Vast Active Living Intelligence System." The proud tradition of lard rock lives on.

Screaming Trees Albums

Other Worlds EP (1985)
Clairvoyance (1986)
Even If and Especially When (1987)
Invisible Lantern (1988)
Buzz Factory (1989)
Change Has Come EP (1990)
Uncle Anesthesia (1991)
Sweet Oblivion (1993)
Dust (1996)
Last Words (recorded 1999, released 2011)

Mark Lanegan Albums

The Winding Sheet (1990)
Whiskey for the Holy Ghost (1994)
Scraps at Midnight (1997)
I'll Take Care of You (1999)
Field Songs (2001)
Bubblegum (2004)
Ballad of the Broken Seas (With Isobel Campbell, 2006)
Sunday at Devil Dirt (With Isobel Campbell, 2008)
Hawk (With Isobel Campbell, 2010)
Blues Funeral (2012)
Black Pudding (With Duke Garwood, 2013)
Imitations (2013)

Conner Brothers Albums

Solomon Grundy (1990)
The Purple Outside — Mystery Lane (1990)
Valis — Head Full of Pills (2004)
Valis — Champions of Magic (2005)

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