Album Review: Mark Lanegan, ‘Houston: Publishing Demos 2002′
During a particularly atmospheric moment on this set of thirteen year-old recordings, Mark Lanegan sings "forget your yesterdays, son." Indeed, Lanegan has been reticent to look back on his past even in interviews, so we can only imagine his thought process in allowing this archival material to see the light of day. But listeners should know off that bat that, despite its title, Houston: Publishing Demos 2002 is no mere hodgepodge of incomplete leftovers in progress. In fact, hardly any of the tracks sound like demos at all, at least in the classic sense where artists would record them as placeholder sketches of material they intend to track "for real" at a later date. Instead, the fleshed-out arrangements here give every tune on this release an air of completeness. This holds true even in cases where the songs hover in one musical idea for two minutes before ending prematurely, without necessarily developing or branching out into new sections.
Still, even a spare number like "Grey Goes Black" – which consists of nothing but Lanegan's voice, acoustic guitar, lots of reverb and a strong sense of the room they were recorded in – comes off as finished. And in every case, there's no questioning that Lanegan committed to the mood and emotional punch he was trying to convey. The music on Houston falls between two Lanegan solo albums, 2001's Field Songs and 2003's Here Comes That Weird Chill, so fans of his discography can draw whatever conclusions they will about what these newly surfacing songs say about his career trajectory. By this point in his career, Lanegan had already put out five solo albums and was well on his way toward reinventing himself as a grim-faced desert noir troubadour in the wake of his ascension to alt-rock fame as frontman of the Screaming Trees, which had broken up only two years prior.
Sure enough, the laid-back psychedelic shimmy of "When It's In You (Methamphetamine Blues)" bridges the gap between where Lanegan was headed and the Screaming Trees' backbeat-heavy hooks. Lanegan was about to begin his long sojourn into collaborating with a slew of other artists, starting with Queens of the Stone Age and continuing with Isobel Campbell, Greg Dulli, etc, etc. Lanegan (and the rest of Screaming Trees) hail from a high-desert region of Washington state where the climate and topography contrast starkly from the overcast skies and pine forests that enshroud Seattle. At times, as tremolo-guitar twang pulses in the air like heat waves off a desolate highway, Lanegan can tend towards heavy-handedness when it comes to the ambience he's rather obviously trying to invoke. But his raspy voice and near-tuneless delivery approach the manner in which Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young have managed to build their own languages of their vocal idiosyncracies.
Houston is most insightful into Lanegan's artistry when he deviates from his own vocabulary. "The Primitives," for example veers towards Jane's Addiction's dreamy, swirling impressionism. And on "I'll Go Where You Send Me," an errant organ line elbows the main melody like a drunk person stumbling through a crowded saloon. Astute Lanegan afficionados will recognize tidbits that went on to appear in other songs, but Houston doesn't reserve its charms for diehards. Of all the artists to emerge from the Pacific Northwest in the late-'80s/early-'90s, perhaps only the Melvins have shown as much inexhaustible creative endurance and hunger for new horizons as Lanegan has. A prolific writer who typically has songs leftover every time he makes an album, Lanegan gives fans a chance here to peek into his trove of unreleased material but also serves up an album in its own right. Houston makes you wonder how many "lost albums" Lanegan's got sitting on a shelf.