Saturday, August 26, 2006

Mark Lanegan: Part I - Birth of a Raspy Baritone Treasure

I've been at this blog thing for eight months now, so I thought it was about time I addressed this site’s moniker. Obviously, the site is named after the Screaming Trees album of the same name. Said record is one of the best albums of the past twenty years, I dare say, and I may take some time to look at it in that grand context at a later date. For now, I’d like to explore the career of the Trees' singer, Mark Lanegan. It’ll take a while, so I’ll have to split the piece into a number of posts.


Mark Lanegan is one of the most compelling artists to make music in my lifetime, and along with Chris Cornell, he has one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary rock music. Lanegan’s voice is deep, soulful and ragged, invoking the spirit of Tom Waits, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison among others. Few singers have that inexplicable “something” in the timbre of their voice that can evoke powerful, gut-wrenching, emotional reactions in listeners. People say Cobain had it, Jeff Buckley had it for sure, and I’d say Lanegan has it in spades.

Reviewers have described Lanegan’s voice in many ways over the years. Haunting, raspy, stunning, harrowing, growling, aching, dark, otherworldly, rough-hewn are common descriptions of it. A “raspy, baritone treasure” is perhaps my favorite one. However, his voice didn’t always have so much character.

Lanegan got his start as singer for the Screaming Trees when they formed in the mid 1980’s in Seattle. The band’s early recordings showcase a much smoother, for lack of a better word, sounding Lanegan. He was very young then, and he claims that at the time he had no idea how to sing. The coming years of drinking, smoking and drug use likely had a significant formative impact on his vocal chords, but Lanegan claims some of his gravelly tone may also be hereditary (apparently his father had a similar sounding voice). Listening to the Trees’ 1985 Other Worlds EP, it’s hard to believe the vocalist is the same guy that growls through “A Song For The Dead” on Queens Of The Stone Age’s 2002 album, Songs For The Deaf.

Barriers (clip)
A Song For The Dead (clip)

The Trees recorded an album a year from 1985 through 1992, the bulk of which was for their first label, SST. It took a while for the Trees to refine their sound into the unique mash-up of classic and modern rock that it became by the early 90’s. But don’t think for a minute that the early Trees recordings are not strong, quite the contrary. Songs like the following ones illustrate the awesomeness of the Trees' early work.

Cold Rain (from Even If And Especially When)
Ivy (from Invisible Lantern)
Where The Twain Shall Meet (from Buzz Factory)
Black Sun Morning (from Buzz Factory)
End Of The Universe (from Buzz Factory)

For the Screaming Trees neophyte, it is impractical to collect their extensive early back-catalogue. But luckily (or typically if you share a cynical view towards record companies…), in 1991 SST released a compilation of 21 songs from the Trees’ early years. Though inherently flawed by a lack of coherent flow, as most retrospective collections are wont to be, Anthology serves as a solid introduction to the Screaming Trees that existed before Seattle exploded onto the national music radar screen.

For those interested in a deeper look at the Screaming Trees' early work, here's the discography from which Anthology draws its tracks.

Other Worlds EP (1985)

Clairvoyance (1986)

Even If And Especially When (1987)

Invisible Lantern (1988)

Buzz Factory (1989)

Click here for PART II.

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