Seattle singer/keyboardist Shawn Smith is the common denominator of Brad, Satchel and Pigeonhed-and probably a bunch of other bands that haven’t released albums. A soulful, papery voice and the apparent ability to work cooperatively in different setups (not to mention whatever it takes to persuade people to issue albums of his various undertakings) has made Smith one of the city’s most prolific rockers; he has, however, yet to match local activity with widespread stardom.
Shame, written and self-produced over a fortnight in October ’92, is the collective soul of Smith, Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, drummer Regan Hagar (ex-Malfunkshun) and bassist Jeremy Toback. The moody and restrained rock record benefits from Smith’s expressive voice and some soulfully atmospheric songs (“Buttercup,” “My Fingers,” “Nadine,” “Good News”), but the rushed pace of the process and limited idea resources didn’t yield an entire album of equal quality. Where the good tunes strike an effective equilibrium between on-the-spot inspiration and a cohesive band effort, too much of the material sounds undeveloped in composition and improvised in arrangement, turning the corner from casual/sharp to casual/slack, finally resorting to jam-a-loo time-sucking. After establishing an excellent funky riff and organ pocket for “20th Century,” Brad seems at a loss to do anything with it; the song doesn’t fade out so much as slink away.
The more collaborative and stylistically expansive Satchel pairs Smith and Hagar with guitarist John Hoag and one of two bassists. All of the music on EDC is credited to the group as a whole, but Smith is the sole (and dreary) lyricist in an erratic, indulgent proposition that sounds like Pearl Jam one song and Yes the next, with dialogue from Reservoir Dogs scattered for no obvious reason. Smith affects a Princely falsetto for much of the time; long passages are given over to vaguely floating instrumental assemblages and ad libs. Perhaps the liner-note defense of marijuana helps explain the dreamy quality and aimless shapes (and perhaps the cover clouds) of this numbing exercise.
If Satchel is unpredictably offbeat, Pigeonhed — a continuation of Smith’s partnership with producer/keyboardist Steve Fisk that began when they teamed up to remix an Afghan Whigs song — is downright certifiable. Joined on Pigeonhed by guest guitarist Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, the duo postulates what Sylvester Stewart might have come up with if locked in a studio too long with Prince and Thrill Kill Kult. Stitched together from combinations of funky beats and techno drive-throughs, baying dogs, meteorological phenomena and other sound effects, extraneous keyboard bits and Smith’s treated voice and meandering falsetto croon, each long track is less a song (although the soul-stirring romantic “Her” certainly qualifies in that category) than an exotic aural collage that could run behind the credits of a different underground film. Engrossing.