Of all the Seattle-based alternative rock bands of the late '80s and early '90s, Screaming Trees arguably were the best at capturing the dank, heavy gloom of their hometown -- the mix of punk and '70s hard rock that became known as grunge -- but they had the least amount of success of any of their peers. Nirvana changed the world, Pearl Jam conquered stadiums across America, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains reshaped heavy metal, while Mudhoney carved out a cult for their knowingly sleazy update on '60s garage punk and the Stooges. Screaming Trees had a cult, not just among fans but musicians -- Kurt Cobain was particularly taken with the band's vocalist, Mark Lanegan, whose American gothic spin on folk can be clearly heard as an influence on Nirvana's spookier work -- but they never managed to break to a larger audience, even when they had a radio and MTV hit in 1992 with the surging "Nearly Lost You," pulled from the Singles soundtrack. Part of the problem was that Screaming Trees not only didn't look like rock stars -- as the cliché goes, brothers Gary Lee and Van Conner looked like lumberjacks, while Lanegan struck an intimidating presence -- but they looked large, hairy, and scary and made thick psychedelic music that matched. Those trippy, minor-key undercurrents and Lanegan's worn, ragged croon lent the group's music an uneasiness, and while the band's musical touchstones weren't all that far removed from Nirvana or Soundgarden, the predilection for psychedelia and Lanegan's haunted tales guaranteed that Screaming Trees would be on the outside looking in, even if their records captured the roiling spirit of their times as much as their Seattle brethren. In fact, they were one of the best examples of the Catch-22 that faced most '90s alt-rock bands: since their music was built partially on classic rock it seemed accessible on the surface, but the attitude and spirit that fueled their work kept them aligned to the fringes of rock, so they never fully belonged to either the mainstream or underground camp. They forever were straddling between the two worlds, which may have hurt them commercially, but it made for some excellent music, as Epic/Legacy's 2005 compilation Ocean of Confusion: Songs of Screaming Trees proves.
This 19-song collection covers the group's '90s recordings for Epic, which consisted of three albums -- 1991's Uncle Anesthesia, 1992's Sweet Oblivion, 1996's Dust -- plus some stray B-sides and an EP. The band's recordings for SST have been previously compiled on the 1991 release Anthology: SST Years 1985-1989, and they're not missed here, because their Epic albums were more unified, forceful, and realized than their indie work. Starting with Uncle Anesthesia, Screaming Trees began to gel, as the band's sound gained a muscular inevitability while Lanegan's writing achieved a grand, darkly romantic, doomed quality. Sweet Oblivion was an appealingly bombastic record, while Dust had a cinematic splendor, closing their career out on a fittingly melancholy coda. Each of the three albums worked well individually -- with the latter two vying for the title of the group's best record -- but when distilled to their highlights on Ocean of Confusion, they give the band a compelling narrative that makes this an excellent summary of the band's career. Even the rarities -- "Who Lies in Darkness," from the 1990 EP Something About Today, the B-side "ESK," two Don Fleming-produced tracks from 1994, "Watchpocket Blues" (which cleverly alludes to Led Zeppelin's "Celebration Day") and "Paperback Bible" -- keep the album moving, filling in gaps in the band's history and helping to trace their evolution. While Sweet Oblivion and Dust remain fine records in their own right, this compilation is so well executed that it may be their most satisfying overall album. And that means that it's so good that it's easy to forgive the absence of 1991's "Bed of Roses" and 1996's "All I Know," two of the band's four charting Billboard Modern Rock singles -- casual fans may wish these radio hits were here, but the collection is strong enough to thrive without them.