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The Friday Flash Review with Jon Deutsch: Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You”

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Friday Flash Reviews is a bit where the TNOCS.com admin and I pick a category of song to review and the community votes up the song they want reviewed within said category.

This week’s voting category was “your favorite grunge song.”  This seemed like a slam dunk for someone like me who really got into grunge/alternative/modern rock… (sidenote: it’s amazing that we still don’t seem to have a perfected language architecture for this era of music) as I was exiting undergrad and entering the workforce.

In the 90s, there was a lot of heading out to clubs to see the alternative rock band Strange As Angels across the Mid-Atlantic region.

(I was kind of a groupie) while tuning into Philly’s WDRE for my modern rock fix. Good times!)

Strange As Angels (SAA) and DRE combined did a great job dragging me and my friends out of the exhausted 80s pop and 90s R&B scene and into something that sounded modern, meaningful, and absolutely new, while also sounding a bit like a rethink of what 1970s rock would sound like if it had benefited from learning some tricks from the 80s. 

And I believe both SAA and DRE had “Nearly Lost You” in their rotations, though I don’t think it was on heavy rotation for either.

And I think I know why. 

In-a-Flash “Gut Take” Review

The instrumentation and production actually reminds me a bit of Cracker, whose work I know far better than the Screaming Trees. Of course, once the vocals bust in, you know right quick it ain’t Cracker. But I smell a bit of southern blues-rock influence that both of these groups appear to share.

Crackers aside, it’s kind of remarkable just how prototypically grunge “Nearly Lost You” is.

Of course, being prototypically grunge during the peak grunge years is kind of a good strategy for success, so it’s absolutely not a knock.

But it does place “Nearly Lost You” into the more anonymous middle of the pack of grunge songs that I know and love. 

The songwriting, vocal performance, production, and instrumentation (those drums!) are quite good. However, sitting here in 2024, well outside the hype envelope of grunge, it strikes me as an also-ran, which, to be clear, is absolutely unfair: it arrived at the scene quite early in grunge’s development and was more formative than a copycat. Yet, filed under “life ain’t fair, kid,” it really does sound like another (albeit solid) brick in the grunge wall. 

In-a-Flash score: 5/10

The Full Friday Flash Review

Production/Instrumentation: 7/10

Wasting not a microsecond to smash overdrive guitars into your skull, “Nearly Lost You” demonstrates quite quickly that it’s a hard-driving grunge song. The production has all the telltale grunge production techniques down to a science: the wall of sound when it wants to be a wall while offering a ton of space when it wants to be delicate (like at the 3 second mark, where the drums sound like they’ve literally walked up to the mic to show you what’s up). 

The backing vocals during the verses combined with the Hammond B3 and the vocal harmonies in the chorus give “Nearly Lost You” a vague pop-adjacent vibe, which I think helped it achieve escape velocity from the backwaters of alternative music that never left the Pacific Northwest.

Someone in the production booth knew what they were doing. 

And while we’re talking about positive attributes, did I mention those drums? An outrageous percussion performance on this track. Not that it’s unique to this song at all, but it is interesting to hear the backbeat that grunge picked up from hiphop/R&B on this track. You’d never hear a backbeat in “regular” hard rock/metal/hair metal/etc. .

Holding things back a bit is that lead guitar that seems to be whining the entire time.

Sure, alt rock was about GenXers whining about how things sucked, so I get it. But it’s just too much, and mic’d a bit too hot for the mix in my humblest of opinions. 

Overall, “Nearly Lost You” walks a fine line between hard-edged grunge aesthetics and, frankly, a bunch of classic blues-oriented rock flourishes that might take away a bit of the grunge bite.

As the song ends, they leave the Hammond organ ringing high in the mix, seemingly ensuring we all understand that there’s more than just grunge inside.

This sound is more of a hybrid than pure-play grunge, which helps it on the one hand, and hinders it in another. 

But I want to be super clear: this would have been a 6/10 if not for the remarkable drum work, which allows it to notch up to the upper echelons of production. 

Songwriting/melody: 6/10

Chock full of grunge-meets-blues-rock chords and vibes, “Nearly Lost You” fits right into the early 1990s grunge pocket with all the appropriate songwriting tricks to register as legit grunge, including the dun, dun, dun, dun! stanza that defines the chorus experience. That said, the song is pretty dead-on simple in the chords.

It even plays out the classic blues-rock 5-4-1 chord progression!

But it does do it with some finesse. These aren’t straight G, F and C chords in the chorus…there’s all kinds of inverted suspensions and the like to bring these chords into grunge-land. And it works. 

It all works well, but it overall feels like there’s just not enough song here to justify the 4+ minutes it expects you to invest in it. It starts feeling a bit repetitive and long in the tooth by the time it ends. 

Ultimately, it’s a solid songwriting effort — especially in the details that convert blues-rock into grunge — however, it tracks more toward average than amazing. 

Vocals: 5/10

(The late) Mark Lanegan’s voice doesn’t track as straight grunge on this track. It vacillates between the harsh frustration of grunge vocalists and, well, 70s classic-blues-rock. As a result, it feels slightly out of step with the song’s grunge aspirations — especially in the verses. To be fair to Mark, I think he comes through as sounding pretty darn grungy when he reaches for the high notes in the chorus. 

However, whether you think about these vocals in the context of grunge or in context of just charted music, these vocals actually kind of drag the song down a peg because he comes off as a bit too strung out and distant and not angry/frustrated enough to match the moment or the vibe. 

Now, granted, the lyrics actually justify the idea of sounding strung out. So, it’s hard to ding him for that. But I can’t help but share the disconnect I feel between the backing track and the vocals — especially in the verses.

It’s one of those situations where the meshing just isn’t happening (note: I’ve listened to other Screaming Trees songs, and most of their songs mesh quite well). 

This disconnect I’m feeling could have been blamed on the production and instrumentation not matching the vocals, but I’ve decided for the ding to hit the vocals because the rest of the band sounds in sync with itself. Point deducted. 

Lyrics: 3/10

Mark Lanegan claimed in an interview that “Nearly Lost You” is about being so whacked out on drugs that you’ve gone too far and suddenly experience what it must be like to be a person who’s clinically insane, and then in the nick of time, snapping back out of it just before not being able to return. 

That’s an interesting thing to write about. What a shame that he wrote about it so inscrutably that, without the above knowledge, the lyrics sound more like the narrator might be cheating on his partner. That’s quite a different story; what a lost opportunity to convey meaning! That said, because Mark was kind enough to share the song’s concept with us, we can see the lyrics clearer: they are a decently-if-not-vaguely poetic take on exactly what he’s trying to talk about. 

“Did you hear the distant cry/lie, calling me back to my sin…
I nearly, I nearly lost you there / And it’s taken us somewhere
I nearly lost you there / Let’s try to sleep now”

‘Let’s try to sleep now?’ Hmmm….that seems kinda basic? 

Besides that bit of a flop of a lyric, there really aren’t that many lyrics to grab onto. The concept is interesting (points!), but the execution is honestly lacking (points redacted). 

Ear Worminess: 5/10

I might get some heat for this rating, but I’m just going to say it: this chorus hook be basic. It’s fine, and when I heard it, I remembered it from all those years ago. But it didn’t do anything for me. It just was. That’s not to say that it’s not a nice hook – it certainly is! The dun dun dun dun is, err, done enough times to really stick in the cranium, and the “I nearly lost you” hook is strong.

But it all feels like an 8-cylinder engine hitting only 5 of those cylinders.

It’s just all a bit less memorable than I think it thinks it’s being. It also suffers a bit for being a grunge song, which means the earworm rating needs to be thought of in relation to other grunge earworms, of which there are many absolutely epic ones from which to compare. 

SCORE: 5.2…
rounds its way down to a 5/10!  


TL;DR: 

I said it above, and I’ll say it again: life is just not fair. It’s simply unfair to peg “Nearly Lost You” as an empty song template in the style of grunge.

It’s deeply unfair because “Nearly Lost You” was actually formative in what grunge was, and what it was to become. I’m ridiculous. But I’m also being straight with y’all: this is about as average and as anonymous of a grunge song as is possible.

To be clear, the drummer and drum work is stand-out and enough to drive the instrumentation rating up to a heady 7/10.

But the drummer stands alone in standing out. The rest really just blends in the great grunge blender which was the 90s. 

I like the song, and I would not skip the track if it started playing as part of a playlist. But as a lover of grunge, I can’t see myself pining to hear this song in a streaming playlist nor to seeing it performed live (obviously by a cover band at this point). 

I’m not a huge fan of rating things 5… it feels like I did a lot of work just to say “yeah, it’s fine.” 

But, yeah, it’s fine. 

Cheers!

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Virgindog
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Virgindog
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June 7, 2024 9:52 am

Well argued, Jon, though I’d go a couple points higher despite the indecipherable lyrics and muddy guitar sound. It rocks and that’s what matters. 

I’m glad you mentioned the blues influence. Grunge wasn’t a thing until someone needed a label for the Seattle rock scene. Screaming Trees used blues, Nirvana used punk, Soundgarden used metal. They were all doing different things but got marketed under the grunge umbrella.

The video isn’t great but Mark Lanegan’s sideburns deserve a point, and I love his voice, the drums, and the vibe. 7/10.

rollerboogie
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rollerboogie
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June 8, 2024 12:00 am
Reply to  Virgindog

And let’s not forget Alice In Chains started out as a hair metal band.

Phylum of Alexandria
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June 7, 2024 10:41 am

I’m new to this song, and have only heard a few Screaming Trees songs (my fave is “Polly Pereguin,” which is on the poppy side).

I could imagine Scott Litt recording and mixing this song into more of a radio giant. The muddy haze is part of its appeal, but reduces the punch and earworm factors.

Was Stone Temple Pilots into Screaming Trees? They kind of sound like this with punchier production.

Pauly Steyreen
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June 7, 2024 11:07 am

We picked this one? So many better songs nominated, and this is the one we chose? In retrospect, I wish I had not nominated Soundgarden and voted for “Lithium” instead.

I saw Screaming Trees in concert back in the day. The song is fine, the band is fine. But they didn’t really do anything groundbreaking with their sound, their chops or their songwriting. I wish we had voted for a more vital band and/or song.

mt58
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mt58
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June 7, 2024 5:02 pm
Reply to  JonDeutsch

And yet, our contributing author played by the rules and went with the most upvoted choice.
Style points for honor and character added.

Edith G
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June 7, 2024 10:25 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

I missed the voting day and I haven’t seen the other options, however this song wasn’t bad, even if I don’t remember hearing it before today.

thegue
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June 7, 2024 12:32 pm

I’ll have to go a bit higher than you, Jon…

…but it’s probably because I loved the movie, the soundtrack, and later Seattle. If it were so easy to transfer teaching licenses among states, I might have moved there, but instead, the Middle East was easier.

Who knew?

There was a stretch where I had this song on repeat, it just drove hard.

I just read about Mark Lanegan, and why were drugs such a part of that scene? Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t move there!

I visited in 1996 (saw Cobain’s house), then again in 1997. Still love Seattle.

thegue
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June 7, 2024 12:34 pm
Reply to  thegue

Oh crap! It’s an 8.

JJ Live At Leeds
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June 7, 2024 2:11 pm

I’ve been aware of Screaming Trees without ever having heard them. They didn’t quite make a breakthrough here, this was their biggest non-hit at #50.

Mark Lanegan is pretty well known thanks to the albums he made with Isobell Campbell in the 00s which raised his profile for his solo career.

First ever listen to Nearly Lost You. I’m with Jon and Pauly. Its solid without making me feel like I’ve been missing out or that i need to dig any deeper. For me it reinforces why they didn’t make the breakthrough of other Grunge acts.

blu_cheez
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June 7, 2024 7:50 pm

I went to a Screaming Trees show once because I thought they were the Smashing Pumpkins. The drums & umami save this one – it’s got a really nice feel that I like (and I’m not sure I have anything to say about the band’s other songs). RIP Mark – did not seem like the dude had an easy life.

cappiethedog
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June 11, 2024 9:47 pm

Oh, my goodness. “Lithium” lost? I voted for “Lithium”.

I belatedly nominate “Anne” by Flop because my friend’s boss is the original bassist.

“Anne” appeared on their debut album & The Fall of the Mopsqueezer. Based on that song, Flop got signed to a major. By this time, major labels didn’t nurture their artists. They were promptly dropped after one album Whenever You’re Ready.

What I would like to tell his boss, after I loved your band, is that if you included “Anne” on your major label debut and released it as the lead single, I think it would’ve charted, at the very least, on the Modern Rock chart.

I never got into Screaming Trees. I do, however, think Mark Lanegan’s solo work(including his surprising Isobel Campbell collabs) totally rules.

“Lithium” is a 10.

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