Oh, the fun I’ve had growing up and having times both great and awful whilst this band played in the background. The Screaming Trees are almost certainly my favourite band, something that is unlikely to alter given their position as (occasionally slightly odd) incidental soundtrack to my (again, occasionally odd) young adulthood.
I almost saw them once, except (people who know me may want to tune out now, you’ve heard this many times before!) that the Alice in Chains show that they were supposed to have been the support act for became half an hour of disappointment while some people who may or may not have been the Wildhearts pranced about in their unannounced stead. Still, never mind.
So it was with some excitement that I clockwatched last night, waiting for yesterday to turn into today (ooh, handy metaphor!) so that I could buy and listen to this new collection of old and unreleased songs from the band’s final recording days. Having barely slept for the past fortnight or so anyway meant that I would probably have been awake regardless of this, but it’s nice to have an excuse…
Without a label contract and heading for the inevitable breakup, the Screaming Trees put a few last songs together in a rough but fairly ready form between 1998 and 1999 that never officially saw the light of day. After their split in 2000, a few of these started to surface here and there on the internet, so it’s a genuine thrill to have versions of what are now firmly-established favourites amongst the band’s still-fervent fanbase, as well as a few gems that managed to escape the far-reaching grasp of the worldwide web.
And as with just about every release of theirs during their time together, the result is slightly off-kilter to what may have been expected. Whilst everyone is working flat out in their individual performances (Bassist Van Conner in particular never sounding better than he does here), the overall feel is of a more laid-back affair than before thanks in no small part to Jack Endino’s mix; guitars are mostly softened to allow more room for Mark Lanegan’s voice to guide the songs as he does here, in surprisingly gentle fashion. Indeed, the vocals are disarmingly different to his sterling work on the Trees’ back-catalogue, the lessened urgency of these songs allowing him to explore his huge range more fully than before, and without dipping into the usual alcohol/granulet clichés. That’s not to say he doesn’t let loose at all, the two main powerhouses of Last Words in opener Ash Gray Sunday and Anita Grey give him space to bellow, as with the threatening growl during the choruses to the strange and desperate love-song-to-a-gun Revelator.
The “new” songs (ie, those that have remained thus far undistributed) are real treats. Door Into Summer and Black Rose Way are especially impressive – vocal phrasing and directions more familiar on Lanegan’s solo work sets the former apart, while the latter’s Spiritualized riff is certainly a bit of a surprise, and a welcome one at that. The best moment however (and for me, the highlight of the album) is the thoroughly-apt title track, channelling the finest work of the Small Faces for one last, gleeful moment.
I suppose the strangest thing of all about Last Words is probably the very reason it was made in the first place. Listening through the tracks, there’s plenty of snippets to hear from their major label period from Uncle Anesthesia through to Dust, and even the occasional bit from before then if you listen hard/have drunk enough. It almost comes across as a showreel covering all of their then-recent bases in order to convince label bosses that, although they never seemed to occupy the same time period as everyone else (a main part of their charm in my opinion), what they did and what they could do was so much better than anyone else was doing. It’s a shame that the arbiters of taste working for such labels at the time decided otherwise. Forward just over a decade, and this now sounds like a vaguely-reminiscent “Best Of” compilation, with the added bonus of not actually having heard the songs before. Certainly not the effect that was intended when the recordings were made, but this is a definite happy accident in the way that they manage to capture a retrospective musical spirit by making something completely new, standing the test of time far better than the contemporary efforts of most of their decreed peers.
All of which, probably aptly, puts this record in a very odd space indeed. The youthful and contemporary sound of Last Words belies its years, and it’s probably safe to assume that this won’t set off a reunion world tour. What it probably does though, as well as meaning that much-leaked material will now rightly earn their creators some money, it also gives a bit more of a sense of closure to the band’s history. For all the fighting and whatever else that went on, that the band walked off stage one day and just drifted off was all a bit of an anticlimax. Last Words: The Final Recordings allows the Screaming Trees wagon to saunter gently to a halt. And what an ending it has proved to eventually be. We may have had to wait a bit for it, but it’s been worth it.