Screaming Trees In Dusty Comeback

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

specificity.

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.