As life goes on, gradually things fall by the wayside. Time takes away from us friends, family, lovers, and memories. No matter how precious they are to us, one day they will eventually be gone. What price then a letter from a long lost friend, a phone call from beyond the grave, a recollection of some wonderful event well forgotten? Favourite bands are no different, if a little further down the chain for most people. Their fans are limited to the available recordings and hunting down rarities, bootlegs and such. That can be a rewarding task, and there's a lot to be said for fan communities working together to build up a complete body of work. In recent memory, torrents have made bringing together these massive collections of miscellanea much simpler. But once gathered, what then? Again, what price a message from the other side?
Screaming Trees had an album in the bag before they quit in the middle of 2000, and 11 years later it has seen the light of day on the label of their former drummer, Barrett Martin. There's a story given about the band failing to find a label for this album following their release from Epic, and the master tapes lying in the basement of Studio Litho for over ten years before being baked and cleaned. Given a little thought, that seems a touch rum. They played a final show to 20,000 people in Seattle, their records charted to a level that most indies would have been glad to reach, and they would have been a proud addition to any label roster. I'll posit a thought here, no more; is ten years an acceptable moratorium for some contracts? For whatever reason it was delayed, over ten years down the line there is a new Screaming Trees album. Refreshingly, this release doesn't seem to be put out solely to add flavour for a reformation tour, it is a simple document of a band who knew their time was drawing to a close. And this is after they'd released Dust, an album that sits proudly in the collections of many music lovers. That album is still their peak, and as close to faultless an alternative rock album as you could hope to wish for. Yes, the production smoothed out their rough edges, but as a piece of work, it was a genuinely widescreen epic. Last Words... retains some of the production values, but contains less of the magic.
The highlights get close though. 'Ash Gray Sunday' is the sort of single that in all likelihood would have died on the charts for them back in the day, but it doesn't stop it being a slice of delicious propulsive rock. When Mark Lanegan sings, or at least growls harmonically "never felt so empty inside, I can't find the tears to cry" before the big chorus, he almost seems to be talking about the band he'd been in for 15 years finally running out of road. The musical accompaniment is knowingly bright and chiming to counteract the lyrical gloom.
What makes this a document that might be best left to fans is the lack of real intent to surpass their earlier works. It is played with a level of musical understanding and virtuosity that anyone could appreciate, but there is little in the way of bite or jaw dropping genius. 'Door into Summer' is pleasant psychedelically flavoured rock, but lightweight. 'Crawlspace', despite having Josh Homme add a bit of extra guitar muscle, is fairly dull.'Tomorrow Changes' is classic rock, friendly but bland. Only when the end nears does Last Words remind you why Screaming Trees were special, with 'Anita Grey' another upbeat resurgence, a downright stomper. It's a great song, and really shows up the majority of the rest on offer here. The final track, 'Last Words' is obviously going to have extra significance and weight for those dedicated listeners willing to lend it such, and sees Lanegan resigned to the end of the band, who behind him are having one last wailing rock blowout. And as it is something they were so good at, why begrudge them? In critical terms, the album as a whole is non-essential to all but completists. That said, a little part of me, and many other writers, I imagine, wants to wax nostalgic about a band who still have good standing in their affections. The songs that bookend Last Words... deserve to be heard and remembered. It's a shame that the rest will be quickly forgotten.
6Tom Perry's Score