The end of the ’90s was a tough time for the bands that kick-started the alt-rock era. Soundgarden had officially broken up, Alice In Chains was falling apart, and Creed and Matchbox Twenty were throwing ice water on the idea that Nirvana’s breakthrough ever meant anything. But Screaming Trees were trying their best to carry on. A Seattle band long before being “a Seattle band” was a thing, Screaming Trees were never able to replicate the breakthrough success of their 1992 hit “Nearly Lost You” or match the popularity of their friends in Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. But Screaming Trees’ psychedelic, bluesy take on grunge has aged well, and frontman Mark Lanegan has become one of the most respected and versatile vocalists around, equally at home making country-folk ballads with Isobel Campbell as he is sitting in with Queens Of The Stone Age or Soulsavers.
In 1998 and ’99, a few years after the release of their last studio album, Dust, Screaming Trees recorded an album’s worth of demos at the home studio of Pearl Jam member Stone Gossard in hopes of securing a new record deal. The group disbanded shortly afterward, but Trees drummer Barrett Martin, who also produced the set, is releasing the session on his own label as Last Words: The Final Recordings. It isn’t a lost masterpiece by any means, but it does show that the band had a strong lived-in musical chemistry and a fluid approach to genre and arrangement. “Revelator” has a surprising gospel feel, replete with Hammond organ, and “Reflections” is a sparse, mournful folk ballad that would fit in with any of Lanegan’s solo albums and is worth the price of admission alone. (He should seriously consider adding it to his live set.)
These being demos, the sound quality varies—the tiny sound on “Crawlspace” squanders Josh Homme’s contribution—and many of the songs sound like they were a draft or two away from being ready for prime time. But part of the charm of collections like Last Words is hearing such a beefy rock group sound loose and unselfconscious enough to try its hand at whatever was catching its interest that day, including the uncharacteristically lovely Beatles-like pop number “Tomorrow Changes.” Releases like Last Words inherently have a fan-only feel: Those who want to explore Screaming Trees’ catalog should start with Sweet Oblivion.. But while it isn’t crucial, Last Words is a welcome reminder that Screaming Trees were far more than a footnote in the alt-rock boom years.