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Screaming Trees: Ocean of Confusion: Songs of Screaming Trees 1989-1996
Kevin Forest Moreau
Given that Screaming Trees' output for Epic consisted of only three
albums, one disc would seem more than enough to showcase the high points of
the band's tenure with the label. But the troublingly titled Ocean of
Confusion (implying a murky, confused career) puts the lie to that
notion: While it's a solid primer for newcomers or those only familiar with
the 1990s hit "Nearly Lost You," the anthology proves uneven -- weighted too
heavily with material from the group's breakthrough, Sweet Oblivion
-- and suffers from at least one glaring omission.
One can't argue with the quality of the three selections from the Trees'
overlooked Epic debut, 1991's Uncle Anesthesia. "Alice Said,"
"Disappearing" and "Ocean of Confusion" highlight the band's deft balance of
distortion-fueled rock, swirling stoner psychedelics (courtesy of the brawny
Conner brothers, guitarist Gary Lee and bassist Van) and strong melodies,
brought to life by the still-developing croak of
singer Mark Lanegan. But even one more song (perhaps the lurching title
track or the lilting "Bed of Roses") would help to illustrate the band's
scope at the turn of the decade after years on the indie label SST (a scope
obscured by the record's deceptive monotone feel).
One can argue, however, with at least one selection among the seven
tracks culled from 1992's pivotal Sweet Oblivion. Certainly, it's a
superlative record of admirable depth and heft, but the absence of the
gorgeous, layered "Winter Song" is unconscionable -- especially given the
inclusion of the far-less-engrossing "For Celebrations Past" and the
good-but-not-great "Julie Paradise." Otherwise, all the rest of that album's
dense, vibrant, key moments -- "Shadow of the Season," "Nearly Lost You,"
"Dollar Bill," "More or Less," "Butterfly" (the entire first half) -- are
here. (This writer wishes room could have been found for the ringing
"Troubled Times," but that's a minor quibble.)
Likewise, the five cuts from 1996's epic (no pun intended) Dust
sketch the group's impressive musical breadth at the creative peak of its
career. "Make My Mind," the affecting "Dying Days" and the elegiac "Sworn
and Broken" all should have been hits, and the feisty "Witness" nods to
Oblivion's rough-hewn rock muscle as well as the snarling spiritual
questing of Lanegan's exemplary solo work. The Eastern-tinged "Halo of
Ashes" or the ingratiating single "All I Know" could have replaced the
anthology's closing number, the somber, meditative "Traveler" (although one
can't argue with the latter's inclusion on thematic grounds, as it nicely
underline's Lanegan's penchant for religious imagery).
Its flaws notwithstanding, Ocean of Confusion justifies its existence
with the inclusion of four non-album tracks, some of them quite informative.
"Who Lies in Darkness," from the 1990 EP Something About Today, would
sound right at home on Anesthesia. "E.S.K.," a bonus track from the
Japanese version of Oblivion, sounds like a missing link between that
album and Anesthesia; similarly, "Watchpocket Blues" and "Paperback
Bible," recorded in 1994, presage the new sounds and aforementioned
religious imagery of Dust.
As a result, Ocean of Confusion adequately makes the case that the
Trees were an overlooked outfit with much more to recommend them than one
would infer from either "Nearly Lost You" or the (admittedly strong) album
from which it came. It's debatable whether this, being a Legacy release,
will find its way into the hands of those most in need of learning that
lesson. Still, it's a noble effort, if a bafflingly flawed one.
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