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Nearly Lost

 

Screaming Trees: Ocean of Confusion: Songs of Screaming Trees 1989-1996

Epic/Legacy, 2005

Rating: 4.2

 

Posted: May 20, 2005

By 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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