The Screaming Trees are proof that people at major labels do occasionally sign and foster acts just because they like them. On first glance, there is no less commercially appetizing prospect than the Screaming Trees: two gigantically fat guitarists and a recalcitrant front man, the three of whom hate one another's guts. Sullen, silent, large and pasty-faced, the Trees look like nothing so much as the three Vermont backwoodsmen Larry, Darryl and Darryl on the Newhart show, so it's God's own trick on the shallow-hearted MTV generation that the Screaming Trees happen to play some of the deepest hard rock currently on the market.
In short, the Trees are one of the few hard-rock bands still able to utterly confound all trends, expectations and pigeonholes. But despite one hit (1992's "Nearly Lost You") and a slot on this year's Lollapalooza main stage, the Trees are hardly a household name--and no wonder, since singer Mark Lanegan has spent most of his career with a thick wool cap pulled over his face. Perversely, he has one of the most beautiful voices in rock today: He sounds like Jim Morrison crossed with Sidney Poitier. In fact, one of the main flaws of Dust--the band's seventh full-length LP and its first since 1992--is that not enough songs are sung in his lowest, most sexy register.
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Luckily, Lanegan is the proverbial man who could sing the phone book, and Dust is a lot better than that, thanks to Gary Lee Conner's compelling guitar grooves on such weird, intense songs as "All I Know," "Dying Days," "Dime Western" and the frighteningly good "Witness."
Unlike their counterparts at SST and Sub Pop, the Trees have always exhibited a strange lack of interest in the music of ABBA or Black Sabbath, which--no surprise--acts to their advantage. Instead of working the weary byways of grunge to death, the Trees have given way to more psychedelic guitar textures, and loopily '60s-esque Mellotron, organ and sitar (often played by Tom Petty sideman Benmont Tench). And as the addition of Benmont Tench (who sometimes plays with the antichristlike Don Henley) indicates, the Screaming Trees now have a lot in common with classic rock, a term usually reserved for bands that are more than 20 years old and already famous.
But there are still plenty of slow tempos (all the better for Lanegan's blissful vocals to bask in) and lots of nice, simple solos--so much preferable to the weedelo-weedelo-wee solos that designate a closet metal band. Although Dust is not the Screaming Trees' finest moment, it is still head and shoulders above the current crop of LPs by the band's played-out peer group of grim-faced Pacific Northwesterners. Fans of Neil Young, Moby Grape, Tom Waits or the Doors should rush out to buy this album; they won't be disappointed, even if they are a little confused.