“Dust” Never Sleeps

This is not an album review. If it was, it would be a ridiculously late one, since the album came out in 1996. But I was indulging myself in vintage 90s rock music recently, and the thought came to me (as it always does in revisionist thinking) that this particular record was unfairly ignored in its own time. Listening to this record in its entirety for the first time in ten years brought back all kinds of memories, and in a moment of epiphany I realized how much of an influence it had on me as a younger man. The album of course is “Dust” by Screaming Trees, which turned out to be their swan song. But my personal history with the Trees goes a bit deeper…

I bought the album as one of my early purchases through the Columbia House music club. The concept for this service seems like a predecessor of today’s subscription services: for a membership fee, you could order anything from the company’s music catalogue for a fraction of the retail price (back when CDs were still around 30 dollars each, this was a very attractive business model). The real bonus was that for your first order, they’d let you purchase about a 12 CDs for something like a penny each. The only real downside to it was that the catalogue was somewhat limited, but it was perfect for young music fans to build their collections and purchase the great staple albums (people also actually cared about physically OWNING albums back then). Many of my friends took advantage of this service. I bought the Screaming Trees album because I had seen the video for “All I Know”, I vaguely knew that I liked the singer’s voice, and because it was listed in the “Alternative Rock” section of the Columbia House catalogue. This was my first exposure to the demonic throat of Mark Lanegan, who would go on to play a huge part in my musical development when he popped up years later as rock and roll’s most effective part-time lead singer in Queens Of The Stone Age.

In the summer of 1996, my father took me to my first real rock concert. Growing up in Timmins, my only exposure to live rock music came from DIY punk shows, and the local coffeehouse (where my friends and I performed typically coffeehouse-ish music). At the age of 14, I still hadn’t been to a proper mindblower. My father bought us tickets to an all-day blowout at Molson Park in late August. The main attraction was Neil Young (who was and is my first idol), but there were also a pile of other bands opening throughout the day, including Oasis who were then on their famously fucked-up world tour for “(What’s The Story) Morning Glory”. But way down on the bill, in the 3pm slot,  there was this somewhat under exposed band called Screaming Trees.

I had the album and listened to it a lot in the months leading up to that show. I think I connected to the Trees because they referenced a lot of classic rock in an overt way on this record, and this is the music I was raised on. Led by the massive Conner brothers, the sound of the music was rich and psychedelic. They played perfect acid-rock guitar solos drenched in classic swirling effects. They sprinkled vintage keyboard sounds, like the electric piano and Mellotron, all over the place. Their songs were poppy and well-composed, but stylistically they had rock songs, ballads, trippy jams, Indian raga, and folky numbers; a mix of influences that we now recognize as the classic Alt Rock stew. It was like someone time-travelled back and kidnapped Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and Steppenwolf and brought them to the 90s, where they promptly formed a super-group and decided not to give a fuck about the musical climate of the day. It struck me that they weren’t trying to sound like anything but what they were: a classic rock band.

But the real star of the show is Lanegan’s voice. Gifted with the mother of all rasps, Lanegan chose to ply his vocal chords for the benefit of all rock and roll that came afterwards. His deep, gravelly vocal style has become his defining trademark. He is the bastard son of Motorhead and Howlin’ Wolf.  All of the albums he has done in his solo career carry a certain amount of haunting darkness. Nowadays, everyone accepts that Mark is the rock singer equivalent of a werewolf; but back during “Dust”, he was still only semi-lupine. This album captures a moment right before the final emergence of the ungodly growl of Mark Lanegan.

On “Dust”, his singing is the binding element of the songs, and he sings amazingly: alternately crooning, moaning, soothing, and howling as the songs demand. He’s also a surprisingly versatile singer, as demonstrated by the raga-rock of “Halo Of Ashes” as compared with the haunting mellow number “Traveler”. This whole album is immaculately composed and arranged, and Mark’s unique instrument manages to nestle snugly inside each song. The pedigree of the talent on this record is amazing. Desert Rock Godfather Chris Goss sings backup vocals on two tracks. Mike McCready from Pearl Jam rips an amazing solo on the Zep-jam “Dying Days”. And none other than Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers plays a variety of keyboards on most of the album. I now see this album as something of a lost classic, both for its music and the number of significant contributors. When I experience it with an understanding of how it exposed me to some of my future musical tastes, and the fact that I wasn’t conscious of these musical linkages, the effect is surreal. This album was an important link in development of my musical journey, and it seems almost predestined that I would hear it and be led on to other artists. Early exposure to Mark Lanegan’s voice was a gift, made possible by Columbia House.

Back to Molson Park in 1996: Screaming Trees were awesome. I remember Gary Lee Conner doing huge windmills on his electric guitar, and a lot of hair flying around. Lanegan was great, although I remember he was already deep into his famously stoic performance style. And near the back of the stage was a rhythm guitarist in a white t-shirt, clearly a bit younger than the rest of the band. I would learn years later that this was Josh Homme, fresh out of Kyuss.

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