Despite Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan's eventual ascendance to über-hip status as a fire-breathing vocal foil for Isobel Campbell and Josh Homme, the Trees remain the great could-have-beens of the ‘90s Northwestern grunge scene. Of course, part of that may have to do with the fact that they were never really a grunge band to begin with. After all, they preceded grunge by a good few years, releasing their first record on SST -- a (gasp) California label -- and they always seemed more interested in getting in touch with their inner Nuggets garage-psych warriors than recycling Black Sabbath riffs for the alt-rock generation. Still, a rising tide lifts all boats, and they ended up making their last three albums for a major label before falling out of favor to the extent that they couldn't find a home for the follow-up to 1996's Dust. Failing to do so, they split up, and the album they recorded at Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard's studio in 1998-1999 remained in limbo for over a decade before finally being released on Trees drummer Barrett Martin's own imprint.
Arriving 15 years after Dust, Last Words: The Final Recordings is a tantalizing glimpse of the band's possible path into the 21st century. It suggests that they didn't have any major stylistic shifts in mind for the immediate future; none of the tracks here would have sounded particularly out of place on the previous couple of Trees albums, though the production is not quite as outsized (likely a product of working without a major-label budget). The biggest difference between what would have been the band's final album and its predecessors Sweet Oblivion and Dust is that it leans more toward the ‘60s psych influences of the Trees' early years than the mountainous hard-rock riffing they latched onto toward the end of their career. Cuts like "Anita Grey" and "Ash Gray Sunday" (hey, maybe it's got something to do with the color scheme) sound more like remnants of the mid-‘80s Paisley Underground era than a post-grunge heavy-rock comedown. Lanegan's leonine roar is as mournfully majestic as ever, and the band achieves a righteous rumble that shows they were capable of keeping it all rolling, if given the chance that they unfortunately never got.