Saturday, August 26, 2006

Mark Lanegan: Part II - Sub Pop, Trees Go Major

This is part deux of my piece on Mark Lanegan's career.

Part I is here.

1990 was a big year for Lanegan. The Screaming Trees released the Change Has Come EP and he released his first solo album, The Winding Sheet, both on the now famous indie label SubPop.

Change Has Come is the classic “bridge” record – an audio document that demonstrates the maturation of a band’s sound from one era to the next. Solid from start to finish, the EP serves as a harbinger of the creative potential the Trees would realize on their three forthcoming releases.

Change Has Come (from Change Has Come EP)
Time Speaks Her Golden Tongue (from Change Has Come EP)

The solo album developed out of an attempt to record a few blues songs with Mark Pickerel (the current Screaming Trees drummer), Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic (both from Nirvana – duh!). The blues project didn’t yield much fruit, but Lanegan started writing original material at that time. He took his songs to SubPop and, much to his surprise, the label encouraged him to record an album.

Joined by Mike Johnson on guitar (the bassist from Dinosaur Jr. who would turn out to be a long-time collaborator with Lanegan) and a few other musicians, The Winding Sheet was recorded in three days and mixed in three more. Upon its release the record was met with mostly positive critical reviews. Often mentioned by critics after the fact is the cover of Ledbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” that appears on the album, with guitars played by Lanegan’s good friend, Kurt Cobain. Cobain’s haunting rendition of the same song from Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance is the one that drew popular attention to the song, but Lanegan had at it first on The Winding Sheet.

Ugly Sunday (from The Winding Sheet)
Where Did You Sleep Last Night (from The Winding Sheet)

1991 saw the Screaming Trees release their first album on major label A&M. Uncle Anesthesia never earned the critical accolades that some other 1991 releases did (namely Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten). However, the album showed the Trees hitting their creative stride. Major label production certainly didn’t hurt, but regardless of technical help from the studio, signs that they were firing all of their creative cylinders abound on songs like “Something About Today”, “Alice Said” and “Caught Between”. The song “Before We Arise”, which often appeared as a live set opener during this era, shakes me up every time I hear it. Lanegan’s voice is the focal point of the sparse arrangement, and it seems to originate from the depths of some place to which I don’t want to ever have to go when he sings the opening words “Blackness all around…can you wake me?”. “Haunting”, the best adjective my limited writing skills can conjure, doesn’t come close to doing the tune justice.

Caught Between (from Uncle Anesthesia)
Before We Arise (from Uncle Anesthesia)
Alice Said (from Uncle Anesthesia)

Click here for PART III.

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