MARK LANEGAN BAND - Phantom Radio
(Heavenly Flooded Soil Recordings HVNLP106, 2014)
Mark William Lanegan (born November 25, 1964) is an American alternative rock musician and singer-songwriter. Born and raised in Ellensburg, Washington, Lanegan began his musical career in 1984, forming the grunge band Screaming Trees with Gary Lee Conner, Van Conner and Mark Pickerel. During his time in the band, Lanegan also started a low-key solo career and released his first solo studio album, "The Winding Sheet", in 1990. Since 1990, he has released further solo studio albums, as well as several collaborative efforts, and has received critical recognition and moderate commercial success. Lanegan has also collaborated with various artists and bands throughout his career, including with Kurt Cobain of Nirvana prior to the group's breakout success with their album, "Nevermind", recording an unreleased album of songs by the folk singer, Lead Belly. Lanegan also performed with Layne Staley and Mike McCready in the side band, Mad Season. It was intended that Lanegan was to take over vocals in Mad Season full-time after Staley declined to make a second album. Following the dissolution of the Screaming Trees in 2000, he became a member of Queens of the Stone Age and is featured on five of the band's albums "Rated R" (2000), "Songs for the Deaf" (2002), "Lullabies to Paralyze" (2005), "Era Vulgaris" (2007) and "Like Clockwork" (2013). Lanegan also formed The Gutter Twins with Greg Dulli in 2003, released three collaboration albums with former Belle and Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell, and contributed to releases by Melissa Auf der Maur, Martina Topley-Bird, Creature with the Atom Brain, Moby, Bomb the Bass, Soulsavers, The Twilight Singers, Unkle, and Mad Season among others.
Lanegan has a distinctive baritone voice that has been described as scratchy as a three-day beard yet as supple and pliable as moccasin leather which has been compared to Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. During an interview for Pacific Northwest periodical The Rocket in 1996, he said that he drove a combine harvester. He came from a dysfunctional family that he tried to avoid, and was using drugs heavily by the age of 18, having already been arrested and sentenced to one year's imprisonment for drug-related crimes. He got out of jail by taking a year-long rehabilitation course. Around this time he met and befriended Van Conner with whom he would eventually form the Screaming Trees. At this point his relationship with the Conner brothers was limited to talking about music and working for their parents' electronics hardware store. Along with Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Nirvana, Screaming Trees were part of Seattle's emerging grunge scene in the early 1990s. The band was formed in late 1984 by Mark Lanegan, guitarist Gary Lee Conner, bassist Van Conner and Mark Pickerel. Mark Pickerel would later be replaced with Barrett Martin. Lanegan said "I was such a shitty drummer that they made me sing." The band released the Other Worlds EP in 1985 (originally available only in a cassette format, the album was re-released on CD and LP by SST Records in 1987). Though the band was being courted by major labels, in 1985 they signed to Velvetone records to release their debut album, "Clairvoyance". Musically the album is a combination of psychedelic music and hard rock, while it bears many similarities to early grunge.
In 1987, the band released their second effort, and their first for SST Records, "Even If and Especially When". After the release of the album in 1987 the band began working on the American indie circuit, playing shows across the US. Their follow up album "Invisible Lantern" was released in 1988. 1989's "Buzz Factory" was the fourth full-length album by Screaming Trees and their final record released through SST. In 1991, the band released their fifth effort, and their first for a major label. "Uncle Anesthesia" was released in 1991 and was produced by Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell. "Uncle Anesthesia" included the single "Bed of Roses", which gained considerable airtime on alternative rock radio stations. The song peaked at number 23 on the Modern Rock Tracks and was the first Screaming Trees release to chart. Barrett Martin replaced previous drummer Pickerel and the new line up recorded "Sweet Oblivion" in 1992. "Sweet Oblivion" was the band's breakout album and included the singles "Nearly Lost You", "Dollar Bill", "Shadow of the Season" and "Butterfly". The first two singles gained considerable airtime on alternative rock radio stations, while the video for "Nearly Lost You" became an MTV and alternative radio hit in the fall of 1992, thanks to the momentum of the Singles soundtrack. "Nearly Lost You" peaked at number 5 on the Modern Rock Tracks and number 50 in the United Kingdom and was the first single to chart outside the United States. "Sweet Oblivion" sold a total of 300,000 copies in the United States. Although the Screaming Trees were viewed as one of the finest bands on the Seattle scene, they never drew the commercial attention that Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden had garnered.
The band's final album (recorded after in-fighting and uncertainty over the quality of the music the band was recording had brought about a hiatus), "Dust" was released in 1996. The album spawned several singles, including "All I Know", and "Dying Days" and peaked at number 134 on the Billboard 200 and number 39 on the Canadian album chart which was the first Screaming Trees album to chart outside the United States. Despite consistently favorable reviews, the album did not match the commercial success of "Sweet Oblivion". Following the "Dust" tour in the United States, Screaming Trees took another hiatus for Lanegan to begin his work on his third solo album, "Scraps at Midnight". The band headed back into the studio in 1999 and recorded several demos and shopped them around to labels, but no label was willing to take them on. The band played a few surprise shows in early 2000 and following a concert to celebrate the opening of Seattle's Experience Music Project, the band surprisingly announced their official breakup.
In 1990, Lanegan released his first solo album, "The Winding Sheet" via label Sub Pop (which at the time was home to friends Nirvana and The Afghan Whigs). Lanegan had intimated that the album came around following a Leadbelly project he was working on with Mark Pickerel, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. The project was short lived and eventually other musicians became involved in the evolution to the debut solo record. From the Leadbelly sessions a version of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night ?" appeared on "The Winding Sheet". "Ain't It a Shame" is available on the Nirvana box set, "With the Lights Out". Cobain also supplied backing vocals on "Down in the Dark" on Lanegan's debut. The majority of the album was recorded with Pickerel on drums, Mike Johnson (who would later go on to play bass with Dinosaur Jr) on guitar, Steve Fisk on piano and organ, and Jack Endino on bass. The second record, 1994's "Whiskey for the Holy Ghost", was a far more cohesive recording, with such ethereal songs as "The River Rise", "Kingdoms of Rain", "Riding the Nightingale" and "Beggar's Blues". Taking nearly three years to make, the album came close to not seeing the light of day as Lanegan was set to throw the master tapes in a pond outside of the recording studio, only to be stopped by Producer Jack Endino at the last moment. ("Kingdoms of Rain" was re-recorded on the collaboration album with Soulsavers in 2007 and released as a single). In 1995, Lanegan appeared on the album "Above" by Mad Season. The project was fronted by friend Layne Staley (Alice in Chains) and was formed in late 1994 by Staley, Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees and John Baker Saunders of The Walkabouts. Lanegan appeared on "Long Gone Day" and "I'm Above". Lanegan also appeared on stage at Mad Season's concerts to perform the songs. In 1998, "Scraps at Midnight" was released. The album was recorded the previous winter at Joshua Tree, California and produced by long-time friend and collaborator Mike Johnson.
The fourth studio album was released in 1999. The album began life as B-Sides for singles from "Scraps at Midnight" (two tracks from the sessions appear on the single Hotel). Liking the way the sessions were shaping up, a few more were added and the recording was entitled "I'll Take Care of You". The album features covers of songs by prominent folk, R&B and punk artists such as Tim Hardin, Booker T. and the MGs, country icon Buck Owens as well as friend Jeffrey Lee Pierce of Gun Club. Lanegan has stated that Jeffrey Lee Pierce was one of his early musical heroes and got him interested in making music. Also in 1999, Lanegan participated in the tribute album for Moby Grape co-founder, Skip Spence, who was terminally ill. In 2009 Lanegan sung lead vocals on "The Last Time", an A side track on The Breeders' EP "Fate to Fatal". In 2001, he released his fifth studio album, "Field Songs". The album featured friend Duff McKagan, as well as major contributions from Soundgarden's bassist, Ben Shepherd. 2003 saw him appear on Greg Dulli's The Twilight Singers record "Blackberry Belle", sharing lead vocal duties on the epic closing track, "Number Nine". This would be the first in many collaborations with Dulli and The Twilight Singers.
On his next solo album, "Bubblegum" (2004), Lanegan was joined by a cadre of prominent artists, including P. J. Harvey, Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri of Queens of the Stone Age, Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs and Twilight Singers, Dean Ween of Ween, and Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin, previously of Guns N' Roses. Also appearing on "Bubblegum" is Lanegan's ex-wife, Wendy Rae Fowler now in We Fell to Earth. The favorably reviewed album is his most commercially successful to date, reaching number 39 on Billboard's Top Independent Albums chart. Some would assume this is due to the appearance of several prominent musical figures, although the album did receive glowing review by critics. In 2013, the track "Strange Religion" was used in season 6 of the Showtime television series Californication. In November 2012 Lanegan self-released a Christmas album titled "Dark Mark Does Christmas 2012", including a Roky Erickson cover "Burn the Flames". The limited six-track EP has only been available at his concerts. Lanegan released a 5-track EP entitled "No Bells on Sunday", in the United States on July 29, 2014 followed by a European release on August 25. A music video was released on July 15 for "Sad Lover," the third track off the EP. Lanegan's next full-length album, "Phantom Radio", was released on October 21, 2014. It was produced by Alain Johannes and has a similar sound aesthetic to "Blues Funeral". The story behind "Phantom Radio" was of someone undergoing a unique conflict with his own past.
If there’s a constant in Mark Lanegan’s personal and professional life, it’s in his tendency to periodically flush out everything he knows. Booze, heroin, bands, and collaborators have all framed his existence with some kind of meaning and then been tossed out, sometimes returning, sometimes remaining dead and buried. "Blues Funeral", Lanegan’s stubbornly against-type 2012 album, where he folded in, of all things, an impulse for electronica and a dash of New Romantic swagger- had started to look like an anomaly in his canon, a bungled attempt at channeling unlikely influences that were then left to drift into the pool of past-life identities he’s accumulated. His 2013 covers record, Imitations, drew on work by Greg Dulli, Nick Cave, Kurt Weill, and John Cale - in other words, exactly the sort of influences you’d expect the former Screaming Trees frontman to be channeling. But here he was with another album as the Mark Lanegan Band, which in part got back to the feel he was chasing on "Blues Funeral", albeit with a more assured hand ghosting through it.
The story behind "Phantom Radio" is of someone undergoing a unique conflict with his own past. On one hand it’s clear Lanegan wants to make a break from previous working methods, writing faster, more efficiently, and embracing technology by recording on his phone. But he still has a clutch of older influences on his shoulder that he’s determined to rinse out in song, including a wide array of styles from the '80s and '90s that were completely fenced off from his world in Screaming Trees. It’s not always the most palatable way to experience Lanegan, especially when he channels the MOR-hop of Morcheeba on "The Killing Season", clumsily fusing it with lyrics that are straight out of his dead eyed drunk past ("I wear my old grey overcoat", he growls, as the song fades to a close). Lanegan has never come across as someone who’s at ease with his past or present, so the heart of the struggle is familiar here, even if the tools aren’t. It makes sense that Kurt Cobain was an ally in the grunge era, both often came across as being remarkably uncomfortable in their own bodies on stage.
The common feel in a handful of songs here is one of mini symphonies, condensed down into pocket-sized works that create a juxtaposition between Lanegan’s large and small inclinations. "Harvest Home" is one of the strongest works from a lyrical perspective, but its execution is an odd mixture of flat, tinny beats and swooping synthesized strings. It’s a trick Lanegan likes to repeat. "Floor of the Ocean" has a similar uplift, undercut by a moodiness reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen circa "The Killing Moon". On "Seventh Day", there’s an airy, flute-driven ambience and a bed of electronics, none of which are elements most longstanding Lanegan fans probably ever expected him to be working with, but ones which he’s becoming increasingly at ease with judging from this album. "Waltzing in Blue" lands somewhere between the frigid melodrama of Joy Division and Beth Gibbons’ mournful darkness in Portishead, with Lanegan providing the perfect male flipside to her damaged wail.
"Phantom Radio" also provides plenty of moments that don’t startle, with a generous portion of it anchored in the stripped-down sinking feeling Lanegan has fitfully returned to since "The Winding Sheet" in 1990. He throws out "Judgement Time" early in the record, but it’s among his best on this collection, getting back to something resembling the blackness of "Eyes of a Child", where the sheer coercion of his voice overwhelms from the second it’s introduced. It’s noticeable how Lanegan’s voice has become more brittle over the years, becoming less like a drunk preacher who’s going to gut you and eat you and more like someone quaking in fear of an insufferable end. On the similarly bare "I Am the Wolf" and "The Wild People" you can hear the quiver in his voice, feel the tremors in his hands. It’s not hard to conclude that this is the person Lanegan’s running from in his other material here, although one thing he is remarkably good at across his body of work is letting in disarming moments of vulnerability, where he pulls you in to spectate upon the wreck of his life. On "Phantom Radio" there are just a few too many times when it's all dressed up in unnecessary complication.