Planet of Sound: The Sleeping Trees – Sweet Oblivion

Column: Planet of Sound   |   Date Published: Thursday, 16 March 17   |   Author: Dan Bigna   |   1 week ago

     "Any album featuring a song capable of erasing the mundane with one well-timed power chord deserves nothing less than a lovingly assembled deluxe edition."

For the unrepentant music fanatic whose main purpose in life is getting hold of newly mastered editions of albums that represent the greatest heights of popular culture, the website is worth checking out to read about up and coming releases that have been packaged with unrepentant music fanatics in mind. 

The fun bit is reading the comments that include enticing wish-lists. This is something akin to Jorge Luis Borges’ eternity library or the comment made by the greatest of all music journalists Lester Bangs, who once said that the ultimate wish fulfillment would be ownership of a large storage space containing every album ever released, neatly alphabetised. The website lists some mouthwatering delicacies planned for release in the coming months including a mono version of The Doors’ still mind-blowing debut album to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its original release, and an expanded and remastered edition of the sublime Elliot Smith album Either/Or of which I will have more to say in a future column given that Smith’s songs scaled the highest peaks of alternative music. 

Speculation has also begun on the contents of the next David Bowie box set, which is expected to cover the late 1970s Berlin years when he had developed a fondness for German electronic music and subsequently wrote and recorded some of the greatest work of his career. I happen to be a sucker for remasters and in recent times have become an even bigger sucker for mono versions of classic 60s albums, which makes hearing about forthcoming reissues of this kind a pleasant distraction from the sad monotony of everyday habit and routine. 

One band that never gets mentioned in these lofty discussions is The Screaming Trees whose 1992 album Sweet Oblivion was, for me, the standout release from the ‘grunge’ era and deserves pride of place alongside Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff EP and Alice in Chains’ harrowing album DirtSweet Oblivion arrived on CD at a time when vinyl was being slowly phased out and the original mix suffered from an unfortunate thinning out. The music entered a digital compression chamber with the sound sucked dry of anything resembling analogue warmth. This has since been corrected on freshly mastered editions of such 1990s keystone albums as Soundgarden’s Superunknown, the Afghan Whigs’ emotionally intense Gentlemen and a solid portion of Sonic Youth’s back catalogue. 

The Screaming Trees did, however, overcome mastering limitations through the sheer power of the songs. The band’s signature sound bypassed down-tuned Sabbath inspired heaviness that had become a staple of the Seattle sound courtesy of The Melvins and early Soundgarden, instead looking to angsty ‘60s psych rock – particularly on the earlier albums – but also the cosmic Americana and delta swamp rock of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Lynryd Skynryd. Maybe this is why the Screaming Trees never got the attention they deserved from music critics fixated on interpreting grunge as a new face of punk for Gen Xers. The historical timeline was supposed to have started with mid ‘70s stadium giants Black Sabbath and Aerosmith, somehow transmuting into the avalanche of punk rock and US hardcore that came after (and performed in much smaller venues). They wouldn’t have known what to make of a Seattle band whose emotive, rootsy rock ‘n’ oll on Sweet Oblivion nugget ‘Dollar Bill’ might have made the grade as a 1980s power ballad with Axl Rose on vocals, as everyone thought grunge had swept all that bullshit away with one scuzzy chord fed through a battered fuzzbox.

If you take the ‘g’ word out of the equation and the fact that Screaming Trees had its geographical origins in the Pacific Northwest, the band would have been received as a tough rock ‘n’ roll outfit with classic leanings. Mark Lanegan’s voice was soaked in whisky and existential despair that only a delta blues musician would know, with beefy guitars and a hard-hitting rhythm section that nails it on the final Sweet Oblivion track, ‘Julie Paradise’. Here, the mid-tempo vibe of the album is replaced with a high-octane slice of rock oblivion on which Lanegan confronts the void head-on with his bandmates willing to dive headlong over the edge. This track is an explosive burst of noise with potent angst and sorrow as the ignition. Any album featuring a song capable of erasing the mundane with one well-timed power chord deserves nothing less than a lovingly assembled deluxe edition.

Given this year marks the 25th anniversary of Sweet Oblivion, surely the time is right for a proper reappraisal. The reissue would, of course, be expertly mastered to ripen the sound and the bonus material would be a worthy mix of previously unreleased versions and live recordings. For those of us worn down by ineffectual indie pop of the here today, gone tomorrow variety, the Screaming Trees’ Sweet Oblivion is simply the bomb – all we need is a plugged-in record company willing to take a punt.    



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