Let’s start with a big one.
Four years had passed since their last album by the time the Screaming Trees released Dust in 1996, and much had happened in that time, little of it beneficial. The group, intending to follow up Sweet Oblivion quickly, recorded an album’s worth of material with Don Fleming, but the music wasn’t strong enough, so they junked the lot and started again with George Drakoulias. Not only that, they were sick of each other (a perennial Screaming Trees problem – they’d been going since 1985, so they’d put in some years already) and relations were often fractious. Even more troublingly, singer Mark Lanegan had seen several close friends die, including Kurt Cobain, and come close to dying himself. Crack, heroin and alcohol were merely the symptoms of an illness that had dogged him long before Dust and would continue to long after it.
But Dust was written and recorded in the middle of a sober period for Lanegan, and it shows. At times, as on opener Halo of Ashes, he sounds uncharacteristically thrilled to be alive (“I’ve been a long, long time away, one foot in the grave”). At others, as on the grandiose Dying Days, he takes stock of what he’s experienced, what he and his community has lost (“I walk the ghost town that used to be my city”), and vows to celebrate it and carry on, to celebrate it by carrying on. Containing an acoustic intro, gospel-style choir vocals on the choruses, Benmont Tench’s churchy organ and electric piano and loads of fat distorted guitars, Dying Days was a stadium-sized farewell to a whole era.
To play a guitar solo suitable for such an anthemic musical setting and such conflicting emotions – and to hit the right notes about loss and brotherhood – the band called in fellow Seattle musician Mike McCready from Pearl Jam.
A devotee of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix, McCready has a style that relies heavily on bluesy pentatonic licks, played in this case on a Stratocaster with a big tone (moderate gain, tube amp turned up loud and, I’d guess, Vaughan-style heavy strings). When you break down his Dying Days solo, it’s pretty standard blues-rock stuff: an ear-grabbing bent double stop to start things off (played with a noticeably strong vibrato, and picked and repicked six times over the course of two whole bars), a few pentatonic licks up and down across the neck, and finally a big squealing bend on the high E string to finish off as drummer Barrett Martin plays a triplet fill to send the song back into the chorus. It’s not rocket science, but McCready plays it with absolute conviction and commitment.
Dying Days, like Dust generally, got great reviews from the critics, but pretty much went nowhere commercially. Seattle’s moment has passed even as the Trees were recording its epitaph. Guitar-heavy neo-classic rock with psych, blues, gospel and country influences was not what the kids wanted in 1996. Yet Dying Days makes little sense as a song known only to a handful of devotees; it’s too big for it, too widescreen. It’s Let It Be crossed with Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower – something at once apocalyptic and comforting, highly personal yet universal and elemental.
It’s to Screaming Trees guitarist Gary Lee Connor’s credit that he handed this one over to McCready. Connor definitely had his moments as a lead player (he liked his wah-wah pedal, and used it well), but really he was a songwriter, and he couldn’t have brought to it what McCready could. A special song deserves a special solo. Through some kind of alchemy that happens only rarely, when simple phrases and melodies achieve an emotional potency that’s out of reach to most musicians most of the time, Mike McCready pulled that solo out of himself.