The four-year delay between the Trees last album, the classic
hard-rocker Sweet Oblivion, and this new release would seem to
indicate a malaise has taken hold in their camp, and sadly,
Dust does nothing to alter this impression. Overproduced,
courtesy of George Drakoulias and Andy Wallace, two big names in the
hard-rock world, this is an often enervated offering that is a mere
shadow of the Trees past work.
Things begin promisingly with "Halo of Ashes," a psychedelic number
which features some tasty sitar work by always stellar lead guitarist
Gary Lee Conner. An obvious attempt to repeat the formula of Sweet Oblivion, which opened with the show-stopping "Shadow of the
Season" (perhaps the Trees' finest song), "Halo" ends up falling a bit
short of the mark, lacing the defining central riff which made
"Shadow" so powerful. More reminiscent of the pre-major label Trees,
this one verges on prog-rock, with singer Mark Lanegan in his usual
smoky-voiced fine form, intoning lyrics that are general, metaphoric,
self-consciously mythic in nature, and lacking in any kind of
Matters get iffier with "All I Know," which features the first of
many paint-by-numbers, "archetypal" (or clichéd, whichever you prefer)
riffs you've heard many times before (especially on the title track
of the Trees own Uncle Anesthesia album from 1991). Lanegan
seems to be describing a dead-end, wheels-spinning drug situation with
lines like "pierce the skin / come back down to earth again," but
again, the song lacks any attempt at personalization, making it less
than compelling. This feeling is only exacerbated by the fact that it drags on
a bit too long. The energy level drops further with "Look At You," a
bluesy ballad featuring a heavy drumbeat which belies the basic
enervation here: Lanegan croons in a formulaic fashion, and things are
enlivened only by a blistering lead guitar break from Conner.
"Dying Days" features (and not for the last time) the ghost of Led
Zeppelin hovering nearby ("Dancing Days," boys?), as Lanegan
introduces an obsession with religious, specifically Catholic, imagery
which recurs throughout the remainder of the disc. Again, this sounds too much like stuff you've heard before, and is robbed of any possible
power by a production sheen which polishes any sharp edges out of
existence. "Make My Mind" is the first song which sounds worthy of
the band's previous major label work, featuring an energetic, circular
central riff and sizzling lead work, though Lanegan has evidently lost
a bit of range, as he struggles with the song's chorus, and lines like
"Could I reach you in the morning light / if I close my eyes"
perpetuate the vague, generic feel which taints Dust.
Just when things pick up a bit, however, they are quickly brought
crashing back to earth with "Sworn And Broken," a
tear-in-yer-beer-by-numbers countrified lament (and a total dud).
"Witness" gets more lively as Lanegan finally gets personal: "Think
I'm gonna die . . . which God is mine?" he asks, and sounds as if he
means it for once. But the following "Traveler" is tedium in
extremis--boring balladry far below the quality found on Lanegan's
solo albums. The line "Halfway here / halfway there," repeated ad infinitum, sums up what's wrong with Dust: the music
seldom, if ever, cuts loose in the way that the Screaming Trees are
entirely capable of.
All that's left is "Dime Western," ANOTHER attempt to rewrite
"Shadow of the Season" (enough already!), and "Gospel Plow," an epic,
"Kashmir"-derived Zep rocker featuring more overtly Christian imagery
and jagged riffing that's an all-out winner. It's almost like the
band woke up and remembered who they were when it was nearly too late,
and ran back into the studio to try to make amends. Having seen them
at Lollapalooza I can say that the Screaming Trees retain their power
as a live act, but this album is another big letdown in what has
become a very disappointing year for rock music.