Tag Archives: Gary Lee Connor

Never Any Clapton, Part 1 – Dying Days by the Screaming Trees

Hi there. I haven’t done a series on guitar solos for a long old while, so here it is, back for 2019.

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.

Dust

Pill Hill Serenade – Mark Lanegan

Mark Lanegan is an unnervingly intense guy who’s made a lot of excellent heavy rock music, with his former band the Screaming Trees, with the Queens of the Stone Age/Desert Sessions guys and with Greg Dulli as the Gutter Twins. But it’s the stream of low-key, spare, acoustic solo albums he’s recorded over the years – the ones that give his voice the space to shine that it never had when it was fighting to make itself heard over the wall of guitar constructed by Gary Lee Connor and Josh Homme – that tell you the most about him as a singer. It’s on these records that you hear Lanegan’s full range as a vocalist, the rough grain of his knotted baritone, the surprising ease with which he moves up into the tenor range. He’s got the requisite technical gifts, but over the years he developed the emotional range to become a fine interpretive singer and a spellbinding singer-songwriter.

One of the chief pleasures of a Lanegan solo record for long-time alternative rock fans like me is to read the sleevenotes and see who’s guesting with him this time. Ben Shepherd from Soundgarden? Bill Reiflin from Ministry (and KMFDM, and later, surprisingly, R.E.M.)? Chris Goss from the Masters of Reality? Mike Johnson from Dinosaur Jr? Hell, even Duff McKagan, the bassist from Guns N’ Roses? All these just from 2001’s Field Songs alone, from which our chosen song today, Pill Hill Serenade, is taken.

Pill Hill Serenade has an Al Green kind of vibe to it, and there’s even a little hint of Otis Redding in there: the chord sequence, the 12/8 guitar arpeggios, the organ. It’s clearly derived from soul music, and ultimately from church music. Al could have sung this in his sweet falsetto. Otis might have built the intensity till he was stomping and roaring with preacher-man fervour. But possibly neither could have sung it with the same quiet intensity and tenderness that Lanegan does. In a career not short of fine vocal performances (Field Songs on its own offers up the sepulchral gravel of One Way Street, the wailing blues lament of Fix, and the tender Kimiko’s Dream House), Pill Hill Serenade may be his finest moment as a singer.

The song is included on his 3-disc retrospective Has God Seen My Shadow? An Anthology 19882011, which if you’re interested in catching up on nearly 25 years of solo Lanegan, may be the place to start. Although starting at the beginning with the skeletal but riveting The Winding Sheet and working through is an equally good idea; Nirvana fans who aren’t familiar with his solo debut will be interested to hear a guest Kurt Cobain vocal on Down in the Dark and the version of Where Did You Sleep Last Night featuring Cobain on guitar and Krist Novoselic on bass*.

Lanegan
Mark Lanegan promo pic, circa Field Songs

*In 1989 Cobain and Novoselic began playing heavy blues tunes with Lanegan and Screaming Trees drummer, leadbell Mark Pickerel, mining the Leadbelly catalogue for inspiration. Where Did You Sleep Last Night was from a Jury session at Reciprocal with Jack Endino recording. It ended up on Lanegan’s solo record once the band sputtered out. Ain’t It a Shame, with Cobain singing, came out on the Nirvana box set.