Like Athens (Georgia, that is) in the Eighties, Seattle in the Nineties has been scooped and hyped ad nauseum as the Scene of the Minute. The airways are rife with some thing called "the Seattle Sound," and the runways are featuring the bold, new look of "grunge" (as if Seattle were the only town in America with thrift shops). Consequently, if never another word were written about Seattle and its offspring (you know, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, blah, blah, blah), it would be too soon.
But like the New York Dolls classic, there's another fearless foursome from Seattle who'll never have "Too Much Too Soon." That band is Screaming Trees.
Ah, the Trees, you say A heard all about them. Seen their Buzz Clip on that ultimate barometer of up-to-the-minuteness MTV. Heard same on the Singles soundtrack. Maybe even seen 'em touring with that other band from the Great Northwest, Alice in Chains. And, yeah, all those things would be right, and "Nearly Lost on You" is and was a certifiable postalternative smasheroo, and now, thanks to media bandwagoning, the Trees can safely get arrested outside of Puget Sound. But there's more, much, much, much more to this band of heavies, and it's not all brand new.
Hark back to 1986, in a speck of a town called Ellensburg, a neat two-hour bus ride from Seattle. The Conner brothers, bassist Van and guitarist Gary Lee, the sizable bookends that anchor the Trees, hold court in their mom-and-pop's video store, where the action is, with soon-to-be Screaming singer Mark Lanegan. A stickman, since departed, is drafted into the fold, a demo recorded, and a pal is persuaded to press the follow-up batch on Ellensburg's sole label, Velvetone. The resulting endeavor, Clairvoyance, produced by Velvetone chief Steve Fisk, not only puts the Trees in perspective, it grabs the attention of Black Flag's Greg Ginn, who proceeds to lure the band to his own label, SST. And in the indie world, SST spells instant cachet.
Beginning with 1987's Even If And Especially When and followed in rapid succession by two more bracing longplayers, Invisible Lantern ('88) and Buzz Factory ('89), plus the release of the Trees' early demo-turned-EP Other Worlds, not to mention the requisite bout of continuous touring, Screaming Trees were well on their way to becoming yet another in a long line of college-radio darlings. But even with the support of one of the most uncompromising independent labels in American rock history, the Trees could grow only so high, and in 1990 they jumped SST's ship.
An EP on Seattle's now-legendary Sub Pop (birthplace of, you guessed it, Nirvana), Change Has Come, helped to purge the indie-itis out of the Trees' system, and that same year they turned to major muscle (Epic) with another shorty, Something About Today. Though their somewhat auspicious major-label debut didn't produce any hits per se, and hardly set any sales records, the Trees' stick-to-their-guns mentality must've been just what the fat cats at Epic ordered, for they let the Trees go back in the studio, on the company tab.
The Trees were almost felled by the trappings of could-be success, and the album they let slip, Uncle Anesthesia, while not wholly without merit, could still very well have been titled Uncle Antiseptic. It was that sterile. It was a disappointment in a business laden with disappointments, and the Trees needed some quick pruning.
Uncle didn't make the Trees say "uncle." Instead they packed their gear, headed for the Big Bad Apple, and sequestered themselves in a room, vowing not to come out until they had the proper amount of blood, sweat, and tears on tape.
When Sweet Oblivion hit the racks, it was obvious the Trees were on to something. Here was an album, call it neo-classic rock, filled with the power of the greatest in arena moments, yet laced with an introspection heretofore found only on the lower rungs of the FM radio dial. Like the members themselves (the Conner boys each weigh in at 300+ and all Trees stand over six-foot-three, which makes their frequent band brawls Wrestlemania material), Sweet Oblivion was massive in scope, sound, fury. An ultimate post-alt slab of killer rock from a hard place. It was as if the Gods of Rock had somehow gotten all mixed up and put Ian Curtis in front of Bad Company or Paul Rodgers at the helm of Joy Division. It was Mountain with brains, the Doors with a buzzsaw, the Black Crowes minus the pose, or for that matter, the clothes. A great rock record for our time.
These days, Screaming Trees are biding time, touring and touring, trying to wait out, rather than live up to, the hype that ate Seattle. They were there before the storm hit, and chances are they'll be there well after the storm subsides, cranking out bigger and better rock for those who really give a damn.
Screaming Trees perform after 7:00 p.m. Saturday at the Edge, 200 W Broward Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 525-9333. Tickets cost $12.