Review Summary: Doug Martsch and Scot Schmaljohn mix Alterna-Pop and Post-Hardcore with Treepeople.
Guilt Regret Embarrassment is dissonance through and through. The album, a guitar-heavy 1989 debut for the band Treepeople would serve as a platform for then guitarist Doug Martsch to experiment with the kind of Alternative Rock that would eventually make him (sorta) famous, with Built to Spill, and the whole of the Pacific Northwest infamous, as well as a perfect example of pre-Nirvana Grunge at its finest. Martsch sings roughly half of the songs on the album, straining his warm, yet high-pitched voice box to keep up with the fuzzy punk his band delivers at warp speed, while Scott Schmaljohn, the band’s other guitarist, takes care of the other half. Scott’s deep, punk growl seems much more apt to fill the void where singing needs to be than Martsch’s, but there is something vaguely boring about his muffled barks that leaves the listener wishing Doug back to give Treepeople some sugar.
Songs like Martsch’s Pity take the band’s alt rock intentions and run with them, leaving a result that sounds like Modest Mouse’s drunken take on Dinosaur Jr, while others, like the 1:27 second, Transitional Devices, are hardcore punk to a tee (not surprisingly enough, the latter is sung by Schmaljohn). This leaves the album a slightly undecided mesh of pummeling and pleasant (for lack of a better word at least). Martsch does seem to come away with the upper hand though, as his songs as far more enjoyable, original and affecting. The guitar work on the aforementioned Pity is nothing short of blistering, a J. Mascis worthy journey across the guitar neck and into my heart. And the fret board fireworks don’t stop there, oh no! Much to my pleasure, extended guitar solos can be found in a large amount of the songs on Guilt Regret Emarrasment.
Stay, another short burst of testosterone-fueled agony once again proves Martsch’s superiority over Schmaljohn’s. Where Martsch delivers lyrics in a calm, yet-oh-so inviting demeanor, Schmaljohn’s abrasive vocals tend to weigh songs down. On this particular number he sounds very near to that of [Fugazi singer] Guy Picciotto’s polarizing squawk, and the combination of that, limp lyrics and a weak metal riff prove too much for all the furious guitar interplay in the world. Some of the songs on GRE are just average. That being said, there’s never anything in this angular collection of Post-Punk chops that reaches the point of being unbearable. It’s also easy to see why Doug Martsch’s other project more often gets recognized as being one of Alt-Pop’s staples. Built to Spill are just better. Indie kids will enjoy this for what it is, and Grunge guys can to use it as a time-machine to a time when everything didn’t smell like teen spirit.
Guilt Regret Embarrassment’s finale, Trailer Park, is every bit as poignant today as it was decades ago, a post-hardcore tune bursting with brilliant guitar licks and fiery political wordplay, featuring Scott Schmaljohn’s best work on the entire album. A good ending, that’s for certain.