Option Magazine, January/February 1991
by Bill Meyer
Consider the solo album. As an effort to stretch artistically
and move beyond the confines of the mother band, the solo album usually
provides a distillation of that member's contributions to his or her group.
Thus, one might have expected to hear some part of the Screaming Trees
visceral hard rock on The Winding Sheet, Mark Lanegan's solo debut on
Seattle house of grunge, SubPop Records. But this time, when the artist
proclaims that the band's music and his solo record are "apples and
oranges", he's not kidding.
Shorn of Screaming Trees' high decibel, high speed attack,
Lanegan is not without impact. However, his solo music is much more atmospheric
than the Trees. There are no rushed tempos, and hardly a power chord or
wah-wah pedal in earshot on The Winding Sheet. Instead, lanegan has created
eerie atmospheric music from the most elemantal components: acoustic and
electric guitars, his expressively growling voice, and a dozen shadowy,
achey songs. It's the blues, but the album barely offers a conventional
blues chord or structure - it is pure blues in atmosphere and emotion.
The genesis of the album, aptly enough, occurred when Lanegan
joined drummer Mark Pickerel (then of the Screaming Trees), guitarist
Kurdt Kobain, and bassist Christ Novoselic (both of Nirvana), to do an
EP of blues songs. Lanegan recalls, "We rehearsed one time, did three
songs, and hated two." However, the idea came up for Lanegan to do
some originals. He wrote twenty songs in a month, then showed them to
SubPop. Far from the rejection Lanegan expected, he was enthusiatically
received and given the go-ahead to record.
Lanegan took his songs to guitarist Mike Johnson (of Snakepit)
to work out arrangements. "Mike and I talked. We wanted it to be
quiet, to have a mood. We rehearsed one time, then just did it really
fast." The two were joined by producer/bassist Jack Endino, best
known for his work with Soundgarden, and a few other musicians. Recalls
Lanegan, "They (Endino and Johnson) carried the ball for me. They
took it more seriously than I did. Mike got upset if I did a goof lyric
- I tend to undermine what I do. In retrospect, it was good of them. It
was so much better than I expected." In three days of recording and
three days of mixing, the album was complete.
The contribution of musicians to The Winding Sheet are incalculable.
Johnson's guitars build delicately muscular atmospheres; they provide
the perfect aural illustration of an "Ugly Sunday" and twist
and chime like they're summoning ghosts on the album's title song. Mark
Pickerel's brushed drums on half the songs provides just enough forward
momentum, while Steve Fisk's sparse keyboards and Justin Williams' dry,
spooky violin define the mood on a few crucial tunes.
Lanegan's songs are the heart of the project, though, and
they are an uncommonly dark lot. Themes of death, loss, and emotional
desolation persist. Whether on his own "Woe", in which the song's
protagonist takes refuge in a bottle because, "I'd rather be drunk
than dead", or on the stormy cover of Ledbelly's "Where Did
You Sleep Last Night?", violence is constantly threatened and sometimes
chillingly served up. Lanegan, however, distances himself somewhat from
the album's relentless darkness.
"It's one side of my personality. it wasn't very objective
that way - life is not all complete shittiness, although it seemed so
at the time. I get a lot out fo life, and good writing is something that
expresses all ends of it. It's easy to write one-sided - it doesn't take
much to make somebody cry if you want to do it."
Therefore, Lanegan's next album will move in a somewhat different
direction. "I plan to do it in one or two days - I want it to have
a consistant sound." Although his first album only had two songs
with loud guitars, the next one may have none. Instead, lanegan wants
to use more strings and perhaps a barritone sax. "Mike (Johnson)
and I will do it. He wants to do it like Astral Weeks - use
the same concept, do it in a straight shot." Lanegan may also take
his solo show on the road with Johnson and Williams, although he hasn't
done so yet.
"It's a frightening thought to get up in front of people,
but I would like to have a good band."