Don't Call It Nothing

Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 22 - Mark Lanegan & The Screaming Trees: 1990-93

April 07, 2022 Lance Davis Season 1 Episode 22
Don't Call It Nothing
Don't Call It Nothing - Episode 22 - Mark Lanegan & The Screaming Trees: 1990-93
Show Notes Transcript

Don't Call It Nothing continues its tribute to the Screaming Trees and the late Mark Lanegan by reviewing the years 1990-93. The decade began with Lanegan releasing his solo debut, The Winding Sheet, with help from Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana. Both Conner brothers released records in 1990 through New Alliance Records, a subsidiary of SST that began life as an outlet for D Boon and Mike Watt of the Minutemen. In 1991, the Trees released their major label debut and final album with original drummer Mark Pickerel, Uncle Anesthesia. Barrett Martin then replaced Pickerel in time to record the band's masterpiece, 1992's Sweet Oblivion. We end the episode in 1993 as Mark Lanegan joins The Walkabouts for a soulful walk through the Charlie Rich catalog.

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Theme Song: Mike Nicolai, “Trying To Get It Right” [Bandcamp]

Welcome to Don't Call It Nothing, the podcast dedicated to the lost history of '90s roots, rap, and rock 'n' roll, and now officially based on the book of the same name. This is Lance Uehara Davis and when we last left them, the Screaming Trees were exiting the 1980s like a bullet wound. Three albums on SST and a double 7” on Sub Pop established the band as modern avatars of psychedelic rock. There was just one problem. As 1990 began, they had no label. That changed in late spring when they signed to Epic, but the label wasn’t exactly an acid rock think tank. 

In Spin's “Oral History Of Screaming Trees’ ‘Nearly Lost You’”, bassist Van Conner says, “When we first signed, they didn’t know what to do with us. We were in the Epic Records heavy metal department. We were on a compilation called something like Blazing Metal with bands like Winger." [laughs] "She's Only 17." “Yard Trip #7.” It’s math metal, guys. It’s gonna be huge! So, while Epic was poking the Screaming Trees with a stick, trying to figure out what their new toy did, the individual Trees worked on their own projects. In fact, 1990 was a weirdly productive year FOR the Trees, just not AS the Trees.

Obviously, Mark Lanegan’s solo debut, The Winding Sheet, was the most significant of the 1990 releases, but I wanna start with the Conners. I remember it being late spring/early summer of 1990 when KCSC received a package from New Alliance Records. The label was started by D Boon, Mike Watt, and Martin Tamburovich when they were all still in The Reactionaries or had just switched over to calling themselves the Minutemen, at which point Martin dropped out of the band, but still helped run New Alliance. After D’s death, Watt and Tamburovich sold the label to SST and Greg Ginn turned it into an experimental subsidiary. Anyway, I cracked open this mysterious package and inside were four albums: 

  • Jack Brewer Band (singer/lyricist from Saccharine Trust) - Rockin' Ethereal
  • Taste Test #1 – A double vinyl compilation of live performances from Loyola Marymount’s radio station, KXLU. Most of the tracks were recorded 1986-87, but the two D Boon tracks were recorded in ’83 and ’84, respectively. We get a couple fIREHOSE songs, brilliant spoken word from Watts poet, Wanda Coleman, and Screaming Trees covering Cream’s “Tales Of Brave Ulysses.”
  • Purple Outside – Mystery Lane
  • Solomon Grundy – S/T

Those last two albums are relevant to our story because Purple Outside was Lee Conner’s side project and Solomon Grundy was Van Conner’s side band. Both records are … pretty good. Mystery Lane is a proper homage to psychedelia, but Lee isn’t the strongest singer and his voice is way up in the mix singing LOTS of words. This may have been youthful arrogance. Lee is a way better singer now, in his 50s, than he was in his 20s, not because he can hit more notes, but because he has the artistic maturity to know where his voice needs to sit inside of an arrangement. That said, Mystery Lane also has moments where you’re reminded, “Oh yeah, this motherscratcher’s in the Screaming Trees, isn’t he?”

Purple Outside – “Combination Of The 3”

Mmm … Raw Power all up in this piece. That’s Lee Conner on bass, vocals, and battlefield lead guitar and little brother Patrick on drums. The song is “Combination Of The 3” from Purple Outside’s Mystery Lane

There’s nothing quite that intense on Solomon Grundy’s self-titled debut, but they sound a lot more fun.

Solomon Grundy – “Out There”

That’s Solomon Grundy with Van Conner on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. In retrospect, maaaaybe we should’ve seen the Dinosaur Jr hookup coming. That song is totally Dinosaur III, from the opening riff, to those distinctive Mascis drum fills, to the way Lee McCullough’s lead guitar leaps out of the arrangement, going heavy on the tremolo bar. The other influence I hear in the band is Grant Hart, not just in the drumming, but also in some of the songwriting. Those prodigious influences noted, this is very much a first record. A little samey after awhile, it probably would’ve been a perfect EP. Incidentally, those drums fills are courtesy of Sean Hollister, who’d briefly join the Trees after Mark Pickerel quit the band later in 1990, roughly around the same time Van left to tour with Dino Jr. the first time.

Wanna hear something weird? The name of that Solomon Grundy song is “Out There.” It’s the album’s leadoff track. And while that doesn’t seem to be a particularly distinctive title, three years later Dinosaur Jr released the album Where You Been. Its leadoff track? “Out There.”

Speaking of Pickerel, once he laid down his drum parts for Uncle Anesthesia in late ’90, he bounced, the only member of the Screaming Trees to ever leave the band. I get it. It’s not that they’d been a struggling band for five long years, with a lot of time in close proximity, sharing strong opinions, and with increasingly higher (and more stressful) professional stakes. It’s that these guys had known each other since they were kids, so you know how it is. Sometimes you just need a new environment, new influences, new ideas to consider. 

So, Pickerel formed a new band called Truly. It initially featured himself on drums, Chris Quinn on bass, and Robert Roth on vocals and guitar. Then they recruited Hiro Yamamoto into the band – that’s Soundgarden’s original bassist – so Quinn switched to guitar. For me, it’s mostly generic psychedelia and what came to be called grunge. “Married In The Playground” is the one song that jumped out to me for having a pop sensibility, almost a Joe Jackson vibe.

Truly – “Married In The Playground”

That’s “Married In The Playground” from Truly’s 1991 debut, the Heart And Lungs EP. This was Mark Pickerel’s group following his departure from the Trees in the fall of ‘90.

Which brings us to Mark Lanegan. He, too, used 1990 as a springboard into a future without the band. And lo, it was very good. 

Mark Lanegan – “Woe”

From his 1990 solo debut, The Winding Sheet, that’s the late Mark Lanegan with “Woe.” That’s W-O-E, not W-O-A-H, like Keanu Reeves found a chicken nugget in his pocket. Anyhoo, I wanna do something a little different. Since all the songs from this point forward are in my book, Don’t Call It Nothing: The Lost History of ‘90s Roots, Rap & Rock ‘n’ Roll – available for free at – I’m gonna read my reviews from the book. I’ll also discuss their placement relative to each year’s Top 10 or 20 to see if it should be higher, lower, or is about right. And of course, I’ll insert music along the way. Let’s start with The Winding Sheet.

Recorded when the future of the Screaming Trees was very much in doubt, lead singer Mark Lanegan dialed down the psychedelia in favor of dark, stripped-down folk blues. While technically Lanegan’s solo debut, I’d argue that it’s actually a duo record. Mike Johnson, not-yet-bassist of Dinosaur Jr., co-produced The Winding Sheet, co-wrote 2/3rds of the songs, and played electric and acoustic guitar throughout. Jack Endino was the other producer and he also played bass, while Mark Pickerel from the Trees sat in on drums. Steve Fisk added moody organ and piano to four tracks and Justin Williams added violin to two, bowing the instrument so low so that it sounded more like a cello. Lanegan’s wounded baritone sings about self-doubt, paranoia, loneliness, shame, and of course addiction. Something he knew all too well. Parts of the album are so raw that some songs, like “Undertow” and “Woe,” almost sound like suicide notes and “Juarez” is like the accidental soundtrack to an overdose.

The Winding Sheet originally began life in 1989 as a side project for Lanegan, Pickerel, and two other Seattle musicians: Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic from Nirvana. Calling themselves The Jury, they demoed four Leadbelly covers and one of those ended up on this album, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” It obviously became world famous in the hands of Nirvana a few years later, but the template was laid down here, with Novoselic on bass, Cobain on electric guitar, and Lanegan on raging, haunted vocals. Kurt’s version of the song owes everything to the Screaming Tree. You can’t blame him for wanting to steal from the best. 

Mark Lanegan – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”

Listen to the wonderfully tortured and yet surprisingly subtle “Ugly Sunday.” The lyrics are pure Seattle (“I’m drunk half blind and it’s an ugly Sunday morning/The wind arrives with the clouds refusing to break/Apart ... like me”), and the spacious arrangement was clearly a template for Cobain and Co. Arpeggiated guitars create an ominous air, but give a wide berth to the vocals. Pickerel’s drums build tension throughout by adding little fills and rolls. In the final :40, as Lanegan croons up high, Mike Johnson’s scratchy, “Venus In Furs” electric guitar takes us to the fade out.

Mark Lanegan – “Ugly Sunday”

Dave Grohl subsequently admitted that the album was a huge influence on him personally, as well as on Nirvana preparing for that acoustic performance.

“Kurt looked up to Lanegan, and his first solo record, The Winding Sheet, is one of the best albums of all time. That was the soundtrack to my first six months in Olympia [Washington]. I listened to it every day – when the sun wouldn’t come up, when it went down too early, and when it was cold and raining. I was lonely. I’d listen to that record for reasons. It was a huge influence on our Unplugged thing.”
—Dave Grohl to Austin Scaggs,
Rolling Stone, July 14, 2005

That’s the end of the Grohl quote and my review of Winding Sheet in my book. I think that’s a pretty good summation of the album. After Lanegan died, Grohl had another fantastic quote. He said of Mark, “If he sang about pain you believed it and if he sang about love you believed it.” Aside from the fact that pain and love are usually the same thing [chuckles], Grohl nails it. We’ve heard pain songs in “Woe” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” How about some love? I wanna play the second verse of “Wild Flowers” because the words kill me and then the first appearance of the Lanegan falsetto revives me and then kills me again. This is what we call in show business, “a pantydropper.”

Mark Lanegan – “Wild Flowers”

How good is that? Mark Lanegan and his falsetto with the second verse of “Wild Flowers.” “You could have taken me anywhere/You just take it away.” That’s the good shit, right there. 

I wanna play the final song on the album in its entirety because it speaks to Dave Grohl’s quote about Lanegan having such commitment and capital fucking A Authenticity in everything he did, be it pain-centric or love-centric. Also, listen to the backup vocals. Grohl straight-up lifted those for his Unplugged backups, which was smart! OK, here’s Mark Lanegan with “I Love You Little Girl.”

Mark Lanegan – “I Love You Little Girl”

I have The Winding Sheet as the 16th best album of 1990, just behind:

15. Chris Gaffney & The Cold Hard Facts – S/T

14. Bob Mould – Black Sheets Of Rain

13. Bongwater – The Power Of Pussy

12. Jawbreaker – Unfun

11. Flaming Lips – In A Priest Driven Ambulance

Portland, Oregon, February 9, 1990

Honestly, I think 16 is about right. The number is less important to me than tiers or groupings and this feels like an appropriate grouping. Those are all killer records that hit me in a similar place. That said, I’ll bump up Lanegan to 13, before Bongwater, but after Jawbreaker.

If anything, Winding Sheet at 13 speaks to the depth of 1990. I mean, it has to be a good year if In A Priest Driven Ambulance hits the ceiling at 11, right? So, here’s my Top 10 for 1990.

10. Bedlam Rovers – Frothing Green

9. A Tribe Called Quest – People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm

8. Soul Asylum – And The Horse They Rode In On

7. Ice Cube – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted

6. Breeders – Pod

5. Dwight Yoakam – If There Was A Way

4. Public Enemy – Fear Of A Black Planet

3. Fugazi – Repeater

2. Uncle Tupelo – No Depression

1. Sonic Youth – Goo

Yep. I still like that Top 10 as is. It’s a good mix of show business and handstamps, headliners and opening acts. Sonic Youth, PE, Cube, Quest, and maybe the Breeders were all pretty commercial in 1990. Dwight Yoakam, obviously, was pretty dang popular within country circles, but that audience is so self-segregrating, I would actually be shocked if a Sonic Youth or Breeders fan IN 1990 was even passingly familiar with Dwight Yoakam. So, you got Fugazi, massive in little punk rock embassies all over America, but virtually non-existent everywhere else. Uncle Tupelo was getting buzz at CMJ in 1990, but in the real world they were invisible. Same with Bedlam Rovers.

Consider this: I referenced sixteen killer albums just in 1990. Friends, I assure you that EVERY year in the decade is equally stocked with greatness. Yeah, some years are better than others, but 1990 is not an outlier in any respect. And those are just the albums. Each year also produced a number of singles and EPs that deserve mentioning. For example, the Screaming Trees released their major label debut in the fall of 1990 as a four-song single, “Something About Today,” which included a note saying, “These songs may be on the forthcoming Epic release Uncle Anesthesia, but then again, they may not.” Well, two of em made Uncle as is, the title track made it in a more polished form, and then there was “Who Lies In Darkness,” decent, but generic, lightly Beatley psychedelia UNTIL the two-minute mark, when the Trees put on their Who capes and give us 30 seconds of cacophony a la “The Ox.” The song then goes back into the regular verse and chorus, which is where we’re gonna pick up the action because “Darkness” is all setup for the final minute.

Screaming Trees – “Who Lies In Darkness”

FYI, I’ve edited the text for “Something About Today” and it and other edits have matriculated to an updated version of the book. I probably should’ve mentioned that earlier. It’s mostly small stuff. If you go to my book tab, I actually have a list of my edits and explanations, as well as an updated PDF. Anyway, the text for “Something About Today” is as follows:

I originally had this with EPs, but because it’s only four songs I should’ve included it with Singles. Whatever the case, it’s not on Spotify, but the songs “Uncle Anesthesia” and “Ocean Of Confusion” are the versions from the album. “Who Lies In Darkness” would later appear on the Ocean Of Confusion comp, which was released in 2005. The only song that’s truly rare is the semi-acoustic “Something About Today” (aka the Numb Inversion Version). Overall, this is the Trees at close to their best. The sound is fantastic, Lanegan’s voice is typically awesome, Lee Conner’s guitar leads are savage, and the Van Conner (bass)/Mark Pickerel (drums) rhythm section rolls and tumbles.

Yep. Works for me. And don’t sleep on “Something About Today.” The version that made the album dials up the Beatles psychedelia, so that it’s primo, 1966 “Taxman”/”Rain” Beatles filtered through the Trees. I love how Lee plays multiple guitar parts, including guitars so phased out and compressed they sound like keyboards, at which point the band goes into a vaguely Indian modal rhythm reminiscent of The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.”

Screaming Trees – “Something About Today”

Here’s the review of Uncle Anesthesia from my book:

Like a rich man’s Jim Morrison fronting a poor man’s Cream [laughs]. But, instead of Morrison’s cartoonish darkness or the Cream playing billions of notes but not knowing how to write a fucking song, the Trees pulled in the best elements of these reference points – and SST bands like Black Flag and Hüsker Dü – and turned them into diamonds. From the purview of 2021, the band might seem like brooding baritone genius Mark Lanegan and random backing musicians. But make no mistake, the Trees were weaponized by guitarist, bandleader, and principal song shaper, Gary Lee Connor. Lanegan was the lyricist, but Lee was the tree who made the band scream. His guitar work combined with brother Van Connor’s muscular, loping bass and drummer Mark Pickerel’s heavy, rolling bottom produced multiple fuzzy, melodic, psychedelic anthems. “Alice Said” has always been a personal fave, but other highlight tracks include “Story Of Her Fate,” “Beyond This Horizon” (with particularly fierce drumming by Pickerel), “Time For Light” (with Pickerel and Gary Lee battling for song supremacy), and “Disappearing,” which features a killer trumpet part from Jeff McGrath. 

Screaming Trees – “Time For Light”

My review continued:

Uncle Anesthesia was the band’s first album on a major label, Epic. As for why they decided to sign with Epic, Lee explained in 2019:

“One of the reasons we decided to try for a major was because of the Meat Puppets getting signed and taken from SST [to London Records]. It at least looked like something that was possible, plus we had kind of reached a plateau, doing an album a year and touring a couple of times. Everything we had ever done had taken us a little higher audience-wise and that looked like a way to do that. I know that Soundgarden was signed (to A&M) with Louder Than Love but I think the label probably saw them as some kind of metal band. One of the main reasons we brought Chris Cornell in to co-produce was that we thought he had a clearer idea of what the band was about than (co-producer and engineer) Terry (Date), who had produced a lot of metal albums and if there was anything we were not, it was metal.”
 –Gary Lee Connor to Daz Lawrence,
Reprobate Press, April 19, 2019

Yeah, I stand by all of that and the beginning is particularly good. I don’t remember writing any of it [chuckles]. But, I want the last words on this album to go to Lee Conner, who wrote about Uncle Anesthesia, the album AND song, a couple weeks ago on the Trees’ Facebook page.

“We didn't approach making our first major label album much differently than the ones that came before it. We were just doing the same thing in a bigger studio with a few more tracks. Even though Mark had moved to Seattle by this point, I continued to give Mark tapes of songs I had written and he would choose the ones we would be working on and recording. The one exception is the title track, Uncle Anesthesia, which was a collaboratory effort preshadowing the writing style on Sweet Oblivion by a year. I had given Mark a song called Nightbird, which had much of the musical and melodic elements of the song. As a band, (we) were working on a track that Mark had written lyrics to which had something to do with a Jekyll and Hyde type character. Somehow he got the idea to put the two together, wrote new lyrics and Uncle Anesthesia (the song) was born. As far as I can tell the "wrong turn to Jahannam" lyric is a reference to the Islamic concept of hell. Then there's the lyric "sweet ass summertime." You can almost hear a laugh behind Mark's voice on that line. Maybe we should have gotten a parental warning sticker for that one...”
 --Lee Conner on the
Screaming Trees Facebook page, March 19, 2022

Screaming Trees - ”Uncle Anesthesia”
Bogart’s, Long Beach, CA
November 7, 1992

The Screaming Trees with the title track to Uncle Anesthesia. I have the album at 18 in my 1991 overview and if you think that’s low, here’s the Top 20. Not a lot of dead weight.

20. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Weld

19. Violent Femmes – Why Do Birds Sing? 

18. Screaming Trees – Uncle Anesthesia

17. Cypress Hill – S/T

16. Eleventh Dream Day – Lived To Tell

15. Sister Double Happiness – Heart And Mind

14. Mudhoney – Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge

13. Superchunk – No Pocky For Kitty

12. Fugazi – Steady Diet Of Nothing

11. Public Enemy – Apocalypse ‘91: The Enemy Strikes Black

Lemme quickly address Uncle Anesthesia’s ranking. 18 might seem low if you have no context. But, when you consider how many other great albums were also released in ‘91, 16-18 feels right. So, I’m gonna bump it up to 16, to just in front of Eleventh Dream Day’s Lived To Tell. But, this is just a solid year. Here’s the Top 10.

10. Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque

9. Nova Mob – Last Days Of Pompeii

8. Ice Cube – Death Certificate

7. fIREHOSE – Flyin’ The Flannel

6. Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend

5. De La Soul – De La Soul Is Dead

4. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory

3. Flat Duo Jets – Go Go Harlem Baby

2. Nirvana – Nevermind

1. Uncle Tupelo – Still Feel Gone

Good God, what a year. That list of albums is nuts. As for the Trees, their year both literally and metaphorically hit a nasty patch of ice. Lee explains in a post that I believe was also on the Trees Facebook page. He says:

This was the tour for Uncle Anesthesia with Dan Peters on drums. Das Damen opened a large number of the shows, as well as some other bands along the way. The tour started well. For the first time we had an equipment van and another minivan for the band. Several days in, however, an accident wiped out our equipment van on icy roads in Wyoming with Mark Lanegan in it and two of our road guys, Jimmy Shoaf and Jim Vincent. Amazingly, even though the van was totaled, no one was seriously hurt. The wreck shook everyone up, but after regrouping in Chicago after a few canceled shows we started up again. The shows all had good crowds and things kept going, but the psychological toll of the wreck was showing in the larger amount of drinking and debauchery that was occurring. By the time we got to Florida everyone had had it and the remaining shows were canceled and we went home. After a few months, we started working on a new record that would become Sweet Oblivion.
 --Lee Conner on the
Screaming Trees Facebook page, March 19, 2022

So, the Uncle Anesthesia tour crashed and burned in late May and the band essentially ground to a halt until drummer Barrett Martin joined the band in December. The Sweet Oblivion sessions convened in New York in March, but between December and March the band rehearsed their ass off. If you wanna know the secret sauce to the album’s thunderous sound, it was practice.

Earlier this month, Barrett reflected on those sessions and I highly recommend you subscribe to his Facebook newsletter. I’m certainly not gonna quote his whole post, but this little snippet gets to the heart of it. Martin writes:

“We usually got the basic track within the first 3-4 takes because we were so well-rehearsed. Sometimes it was even the 2nd take that had the magic we wanted. We’d often keep a take even if there was a slight mistake in it. A great basic track, even with a slight mistake or flaw, always has more life and character than a technically perfect performance with no soul. That’s because a great song represents life itself, full of mistakes and flaws and soul. And as every Screaming Trees fan knows, the Trees were all about the soul. That became our benchmark – does the song have soul or not?”
Barrett Martin on Facebook, March 6, 2022

You tell me.

Screaming Trees - “Dollar Bill” (acoustic)
Radiohuset, Stockholm, Sweden
August 2, 1993

From Don’t Call It Nothing: The Lost History of ‘90s Roots, Rap & Rock ‘n’ Roll – page 304 if you’re keeping track at home – here’s my review of Sweet Oblivion, with songs mixed in along the way.

This is the band that should have all of Pearl Jam’s stupid money. The Trees got lumped in with grunge, but Sweet Oblivion is psychedelic rock, the full realization of the indulgent bluster of the late 1960s. For many people, the only thing they know about this band is singer Mark Lanegan and his wounded hellfire croon. “Dollar Bill” and “Troubled Times” are highlights, but his singing throughout is on point. Lanegan was also responsible for the album’s lyrics, which more or less came together after an extended writing/drinking session.

“We never knew what Lanegan was going to  do with songs. Sometimes he’d come with ideas and sometimes he’d do things in the spur of the moment. At one point, half of the songs didn’t have lyrics or even titles. He disappeared for three days and when he came back he was hungover after being on a binge. Not only did he have all the lyrics, he sang everything, too. I don’t know how he did that – whether it was an epiphany or he had it planned all along.”
 –Lee Conner to James Hickie,
Kerrang!, May 29, 2020

However, if you think the Screaming Trees were Mark Lanegan and backing band, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. The Conner boys, Van on bass and Gary Lee on guitar, were ESSENTIAL to the Trees. Van wrote the band’s biggest hit (“Nearly Lost You”) and his wiggly, thunderous bass anchors these tracks. Meanwhile, Lee Conner remains one of the great unheralded guitarists and song arrangers of the era. Dude would get so filled up with the spirit that he’d roll around on stage, unleashing an unholy thunderstorm from his battered, beautiful guitar. And as much as I loved the Trees with Mark Pickerel, there’s no denying that new drummer Barrett Martin was an even better fit. His snare pop, rolling fills, and heavy right foot gave these songs the sturdy backbone they needed. From the first song on the album (“Shadow Of The Season”) you can hear the difference, but his drumming on “The Secret Kind” is monstrous. 

Screaming Trees – “The Secret Kind”
Bogart’s, Long Beach, CA
November 7, 1992

“(Sweet Oblivion) was the first time we actually rehearsed very much. And Mark actually came to rehearsals and sang. He hardly ever did that before or after this album. Barrett had a great place for us to rehearse so we spent a lot of time learning the songs for once. ‘Winter Song’ was the only one we didn’t do much because it was a last minute addition.”
 –Lee Conner to Daz Lawrence,
Reprobate Press, April 19, 2019

The band’s secret sauce was, as mundane as it sounds, songwriting. Not just Lanegan’s lyrics, which are tonally perfect for the music, but the actual arrangements. Unlike so many of the classic psychedelic acts that get all the credit for being innovators (Jefferson Airplane, the Dead, Cream, even The Who), the Trees wrote songs with melody and guitar solos, but they mostly jammed econo. The longest track on Sweet Oblivion is 5:20 (“Troubled Times”), but three songs could’ve been released as old school AM radio singles: “The Secret Kind” (3:08), “More Or Less” (3:11), and “Butterfly” (3:22). There’s no chaff on Sweet Oblivion. The worst song on the record is still good and every verse, chorus, bridge, guitar lead, breakdown, and drum fill has a purpose.

Producer Don Fleming deserves a decent share of credit in this regard. Given his recent work with Sonic Youth (Goo), Dinosaur Jr (original version of “The Wagon”), Teenage Fanclub (Bandwagonesque), Hole (Pretty On The Inside), and Dim Stars (Dim Stars), Fleming was a guy who was more than comfortable with big rock sounds, but always in the service of the song. One addition he makes – and I’m not sure who the musician is – but there’s a driving, Nicky Hopkins-esque piano slightly buried in the mix of “Butterfly” and it’s the perfect addition to the song.

Screaming Trees – “Butterfly”

That’s the Screaming Trees with “Butterfly” from Sweet Oblivion, my #2 album of 1992, only trailing the Beasties’ Check Your Head. I’m good with that placement, although I feel like I should elaborate on the idea of Barrett Martin being a better fit with the Trees. I think Pickerel was the drummer the band needed until Martin became the drummer the band needed. There’s kind of a Mike Heidorn/Ken Coomer thing going on here. Heidorn was Uncle Tupelo’s original drummer and, like Mark Pickerel, went to high school with his bandmates long before they were in a band. I think there’s something akin to brother harmonies when untrained musicians growing up together learn to play together. They develop a unique vocabulary that can’t help but come out in their music. This is probably more obvious in Heidorn’s schizoid, stop/start drumming with early Tupelo than Pickerel’s frenzied drumming with the Trees, but neither was a classically heavy drummer. Heidorn was technically replaced by Bill Belzer, but from a recording standpoint the next man in line for Tupelo was Ken Coomer. What did Tweedy say? “With Mike, I was playing and singing and hoping that I was playing somewhere near where the bass drum was. With Coomer there was no doubt where the bass drum was: it was right up my fucking ass” [laughs] (Wilco: Learning How to Live, p. 73).

Martin brought a similar ass-adjacent kick drum, as we heard on “The Secret Kind.” It’s fair to say that when the Conners started rehearsing with Barrett, first at The Foundry in Seattle and then at Martin’s loft, his massive presence behind the kit opened up their songwriting. Martin could hit all the fills, but then had deep pocket, Bonham-esque heavocity. It’s like the Conners and Lanegan were painters and had new colors available to them. I’d say there’s a similar dynamic in early-to-mid ‘90s Flaming Lips where Nathan Roberts was fine, but Steven Drozd’s cement bunker drums really allowed Wayne Coyne the freedom to experiment and develop as a songwriter because he knew whatever came into his Willy Wonka head was going to come out the other side sounding thunderous.

So, by September 1992, the drum seat was settled, the Screaming Trees released Sweet Oblivion into the wild, and fate in the form of the Singles soundtrack, which included “Nearly Lost You” as its lead single, smiled upon the band. This should’ve been the coming-out party for the Trees – and in a pure transactional sense, I suppose it was – but the music business is run by men with long memories. And if you cut your previous tour short because you were too drunk to perform and subsequently appear on David Letterman with the lead singer sporting a black eye and the drummer’s arm in a sling, well, that’s how you end up opening for Alice In Chains and then the fucking Spin Doctors. 

That Spin Doctors tour was actually the MTV Alternative Nation Tour and what makes it so painful in retrospect is not just the dumb branding, but that the Trees were opening for the Spin Doctors who were opening for Soul Asylum. Now, Soul Asylum headlining made sense for multiple reasons. They’d been at it since 1981, were as good as any live band from 1986-91, and were riding the dual waves of Clinton fairy dust and a milk carton video. BUT THE SPIN DOCTORS??? To have the Trees opening for those chuckledicks is beyond insulting. Imagine getting only 35-40 minutes of face-melting acid rock, but 50 minutes of—

Spin Doctors - “Little Miss Can't Be Wrong”

Sigh. I’m not saying I’d develop a heroin habit, but I’d damn sure be drunk all the damn time. And that is what happened, but rather than belabor the dumb rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle nonsense, I wanna go out on a more righteous note. 


In fact, I’m gonna close out today’s show with one final song, so before I do that I just wanna remind y’all, if you want a free book about ‘90s roots, rap, and rock ‘n’ roll, go to and a PDF download will be available there for free. There’s also a Book button in the nav bar. While you’re there, check out the website, past episodes, and sign up for the podcast at the $5 or $20/month levels. Just hit the “Buy Me a Coffee” button at the top of the page or “Support” at the bottom. Also, if you are so inclined you can kick me a few bucks in a tip jar kinda way at PayPal and Venmo Thanks for joining me on this journey through the Screaming Trees and Mark Lanegan discographies. Next time will be Part 3 and I’m guessing we go through to Dust, leaving post-Dust to the end of the decade as Part 4. If you know a Screaming Trees fan who might enjoy this podcast, please share. 

In the meantime, let’s close out Part 2 by visiting 1993. That year, The Walkabouts (from Seattle) released Satisfied Mind, a solid covers record that was maybe more folk than country, but in a Neil Young kinda way. Excellent renditions of Nick Cave (“Loom Of The Land”) and Gene Clark (“Polly”), Ivan Kral and his guitar do Patti Smith ("Free Money"), but the showstopper is Charlie Rich's “Feel Like Going Home.” It's an 8-minute song, which I normally find suspect. But when Lanegan comes in at 2:19 at "Cloudy skies are closing in," it hits like a bag of hammers. I'm not gonna say something crazy like it's better than the Charlie original. But, it's THIS close because Mark Lanegan put everyone on his back and carried them there. Massive performance. I love how Glenn Slater swoops in on Hammond to set up Lanegan. Also, Terri Moeller's drumming on this track is excellent. I love how she drags the beat waaay back in the pocket. All right guys, enjoy. I’ll talk to you next time with more from Mark Lanegan and the Screaming Trees.

The Walkabouts (w/Mark Lanegan) – “Feel Like Going Home”