Mark Pickerel and His Praying Hands
Snake in the Radio
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2006, Volume 13, #5
Written by John Metzger
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, grunge and alt-country simultaneously came of age, and although the music of each movement superficially was quite different, the two styles shared a similar sense of disaffected angst. As the original drummer for Screaming Trees, Mark Pickerel was at the heart of the Seattle scene when Nirvana burst into the limelight — for a brief time during the late ’80s, he backed Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain — and by all accounts, Screaming Trees should have held an equal hand in its bid for stardom. Van and Gary Lee Conner’s inability to cooperate, however, caused such tension and turmoil within the band that it had trouble getting off the ground. In the meantime, Pickerel left to pursue an eclectic array of his own interests. Over the course of the past 15 years, he unassumingly has amassed a solid body of work by performing with the post-grunge collective Truly, supporting the likes of Neko Case and Brandi Carlile, and most importantly, fronting The Dark Fantastic, an outfit that increasingly appears to be the linchpin that holds together the disparate strands of his solo career.
With the release of his latest effort Snake in the Radio — the first to be issued under his own name — Pickerel further scales back the production flourishes, leaving behind The Dark Fantastic’s psychedelicized meshing of Pink Floyd, Buffalo Springfield, and Echo and the Bunnymen. In doing so, he reveals another act that not only has weighed quite heavily upon his post-Screaming Trees output, but also has helped to blaze the original alt-country trail: the seminal, roots-rock band The Knitters. Considering that Chicago’s Bloodshot Records almost singlehandedly carried the torch for X’s country-punk offshoot in the years that spanned the group’s dissolution and reformation, it’s only fitting that the label is also behind Pickerel’s latest transformation.
Regrettably, Snake in the Radio, which was produced by Steve Fisk — who, not coincidentally, also was an integral part of Screaming Trees’ early efforts — never succeeds fully in transcending its influences. In fact, large portions of the endeavor — from the jittery A Town too Fast for Your Blues to the brooding Don’t Look Back — dip so liberally into The Knitters’ bread-and-butter that the album frequently sounds like a full-blown tribute set. Nevertheless, whenever Pickerel allows his more experimental side to bubble to the surface, the outing becomes considerably more interesting, if not necessarily stronger. On several occasions throughout the affair, most notably on Come Home Blues, he leans upon Burt Bacharach’s formula for ’60s pop, while on Sin Tax Dance he dabbles in the sort of commercialized indie rock that The Velvet Underground unleashed on Loaded. More expectedly, bits of Jim Morrison and The Doors peek around the serpentine curls of pedal steel that ring through Forest Fire as well as the drearily melancholy Town without the Blues. In the end, one wishes that, in copping ideas from his predecessors, Pickerel had shown a little less reverence and restraint, but what he ultimately delivers is, at least, an admittedly strong replication of his heroes, one that inevitably lays a solid foundation for his future explorations. ½
Snake in the Radio is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box