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What separates a good song from a great song, or makes a song stand the test of time, is that every element works in perfect harmony: the arrangement, the mix, the instrumentation and the lyrics have a cohesion that’s undeniable. But if one of those elements falls short, you often walk away wondering what could have been if only.
A while back I wrote an article about Bob Dylan and my inability to connect with his music due to his voice. This is the element that falls short for me in all his music. But hey, that’s me, and all music is subjective. Still, however, it only seemed fair to single out a singer or two whose voice does work for me.
As a native Seattleite, a music lover, and someone who spent three nights a week in the early 90’s seeing pretty much every local band there was, I take the Seattle music scene pretty seriously. With the exception of Nirvana I saw all the major bands of the era in theaters, if not clubs. I saw Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mad Season and Temple of The Dog. I was once tasked with babysitting Mud Honey at Bad Animals Recording Studio while they recorded a cover version of the Bill Nye the Science Guy theme song. Kim Thayil popped in to raid the beer fridge and see what was going on. We were told he did that most nights.
But I saw lots of other bands, including “Uncle Duke”, which would morph into Candle Box, and Green Apple Quick Step which played on Late Night with David Letterman. I saw hundreds of bands that at the time all seemed like they were poised for greatness, whether they were playing grunge, roots rock, or funk.
So it’s probably no great surprise that on any given day I vacillate between which is my favorite Seattle band and who has the best singer. While most people – Seattleite or not – would probably go with one of the big four bands, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Nirvana or Soundgarden, my favorite bands to come out of Seattle (or Washington) at the time, are The Screaming Trees and Brad.
It’s likely most of you have heard of The Screaming Trees, as they were frequently on MTV at the time and had a song on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s “Singles”. But Brad is likely a much more obscure band. Brad is a side project of Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard. It features Reagan Hagar of Malfunkshun on drums, Shawn Smith of Pigeonhed and Satchel on piano and vocals and Jeremy Toback on bass. Brad was not the band's original name. Originally they called themselves Shame. But it turned out someone else owned the name Shame and when they discovered someone from Pearl Jam was looking to buy the name he asked for an exorbitant sum to sell it to them. So instead, they took his name for the band.
I can’t lie, this is the kind of story that can endear me to a band. The Stones did something similar when their contract with Decca was expiring and they were forming Rolling Stones records. Wanting to cash in on their continued success, Decca informed them they owed them one more song, so Mick went into the Studio and recorded “Cocksucker Blues” a song which fulfilled their commitment, but which Decca could never release or profit from.
And while I love that story about Brad, it’s not actually why I love the band. Released in 1993, their debut record, Shame, is nothing like what was being put out at the time. The music was soulful and had a groove. Many of the songs are piano based, with the guitar taking a backseat. But what really makes this album work is Shawn Smiths voice. Smith is a huge Prince fan, often performing “Purple Rain” as an encore in his solo sets. It’s the soulfulness of his voice that sucks you in.
In 2014 “Shame” would place sixth on Alternative Nations list of the “Top 10 Underrated 90’s Alternative Rock Albums”. “Interiors” their 1997 follow up would have their biggest hit, “The Day Brings” that to this day I still hear in the most random places, like grocery stores and movie theaters.
The Screaming Trees fit more in line with their more famous grunge era brethren. But what sets them apart are the vocals of Mark Lanegan. Lanegan has a whiskey-soaked voice perfect for their brand of blues. His voice has the same lived-in quality of Jim Morrison’s, circa “LA Woman”. Lanegan often sounds like he just spent the night drowning his sorrows with whiskey and cigarettes.
Since the dissolution of The Screaming Trees, Lanegan has been busy with numerous side projects. He’s recorded new vocals for an unfinished Mad Season song, released several solo albums and recorded with Queens of The Stone Age. He and Josh Homme (who was the Screaming Tree’s touring guitarist) also wrote the theme song to Anthony Bourdain’s new show, “Parts Unknown”.
Both singers have great rock voices, but it’s the slower songs where their voices really shine. Both have voices that suck you in, albeit for very different reasons. While Lanegan’s voice may be gruff where Smith’s is smooth, both sound weary but hopeful. Both voices are strong but there’s a vulnerability to them. Both are authentic and relatable. And both have range.
Lanegan’s solo records lean towards acoustic blues that highlights the weariness in his voice even more. He and Kurt Cobain were good friends and Lanegan’s 1990 cover of the LeadBelly song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” was clearly a source of inspiration for Cobain’s version on Unplugged in New York.
Smith’s solo work tends to be more piano based and soulful. But whether solo or with a band, you believe every word they’re saying. No, scratch that. You feel every word they’re saying.
In certain ways I think Lanegan is the voice of my heart. There’s hardship, exasperation, heartbreak and pleading to it. It’s the voice of someone who’s lived their life and seen a lot. And while it hasn’t been easy, they continue to persevere. He’s a survivor, and this resonates with me, my past and things still unresolved or unsaid.
Smith’s voice, on the other hand, is like a balm to my soul. It soothes and heals me. Even when he’s singing about heartbreak there’s a catharsis to it. There’s somehow still a light at the end of the tunnel. You just have to make it that far.
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