Years before the hybrid of classic rock and distorted garage psychedelia and punk became the legendary Grunge that vanquished the Hair Metal Dragon in the early 1990s, Screaming Trees and Thin White Rope plied their trade in relative obscurity and penury. Even as “punk broke” in America and they were afforded greater opportunity for exposure, as groups they had already cycled through lineup changes and masterwork albums, and the timing for broad success never really synced. Yet you can sight through the lens of their recorded legacy an understanding of what Grunge in America was, where it came from, what it meant, how it drew upon American roots music, acknowledging what Greil Marcus called the “old, weird America,” of everything from 13th Floor Elevators and Neil Young to the folk revival of the 1960s to the hillbilly/race records of the 1920s and 1930s. The references aren’t always apparent, but they’re embedded in the dust devils Thin White Rope appeared through and the rain-soaked northwestern pines the Screaming Trees turned dayglo.
By the time Screaming Trees came to record Sweet Oblivion (1992), they were already five albums deep into a psych rock career stamped by Gary Lee Conner’s guitar raveups and Mark Lanegan’s authoritative, rumbling wail. On their sixth album, though, there was a changeup: the band, with new drummer Barrett Martin, followed the Americana-nuanced maturity evidenced on Lanegan’s first solo album, 1990’s The Winding Sheet (a record that had a profound influence on Seattle’s rock scene and on Nirvana particularly — Kurt Cobain was a contributor on that record and Dave Grohl has commented that it had a big impact on their approach to Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance). On Sweet Oblivion, the band set their controls to the heart of the West, making the followup to 1991’s excellent Uncle Anesthesia a harder yet subtler, less ornate affair. Gone were the psychedelic trappings, in their place a clutch of straight-up riff rockers and ballads, going deep by going personal rather than into the purple, foggy haze. Beginning to end a great record that to this day sounds distinct and powerful listened to alongside Nevermind or Ten or Temple of the Dog or Superunknown or Dirt, Sweet Oblivion just never took off, and to my mind the greatest of Seattle’s bands never recovered. “Winter Song” begins and ends with the line “Jesus knocking on my door,” and it’s as fitting an epitaph for a band that shouldabeen that I can think of.
Like Sweet Oblivion, Thin White Rope’s fourth album, Sack Full of Silver (1990), is an American music classic. Ported through a Television-worthy twin-guitar attack, its power is in the finesse of its six-string thunder and Guy Kyser’s gruff, horror show bark. It is a record that manages to contain both a cover of Can’s “Yoo Doo Right” AND a 7-11 parking lot rewrite of “Amazing Grace” and makes them work as if they absolutely belong on the same album. Along with guitarist Roger Kunkel, Kyser’s vision of 1980s western America on Sack Full of Silver — highways and truck stops and stoned mirage images — is fully realized, but feels like it could have as easily been recorded, had the technology been possible, in the 1850s, with a mix of frontier terror and mundane everyday life. Profound, pounding, and heavy, Sack Full of Silver is the distillation of all that Thin White Rope brought to rock. As opaque as any of their songs, but endlessly interesting for it, “Whirling Dervish” is ostensibly about detritus caught in a duststorm, and may as a consequence be ultimately descriptive of all of us.