The Forgotten Duke of
Shawn Smith, singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist, is one of the lesser known proponents of the Seattle alternative rock scene of the 1990s, but by no means a lesser talent. While Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell ruled the airwaves, putting Seattle on the musical map, Smith through a number of great bands, some innovative and ahead-of-its-time collaborations and extensive solo work, quietly built up a cult figure status. Looking like a Dr John caught in the rain, armed with a fresh musical sensibility reminiscent of early Prince and a perfect falsetto that would make Curtis Mayfield cry, Shawn Smith has forged an impressive and prodigious body of work over the last twenty years.
His three main outlets, the more well known of his work, include the groups Satchel, Brad and Pigeonhed. Both Satchel and Brad are straight forward alternative rock, with extra helpings of soul and rock balladry, while Pigeonhed was a heady mix of rock electronica ahead of its time.
Satchel was Smith’s main outlet during the heady days of the so-called “grunge” explosion, and the group never really sat comfortably in the genre, with songs vying off into soul, funk and other experimental territories, that killed them at the box office, but earned them the respect of fellow musicians and critics alike. Their debut EDC (1994), infused with some hip Reservoir Dogs audio sound bites, featured some great songs, including Equilibrium and Trouble Come Down. It is a great atmospheric record, filled with emotional power ballads and brooding soundscapes. Their second album The Family (1996) went for a more commercial sound, but without compromising the song writing and production. The album featured some great uplifting songs like Without Love, as well as the brooding rock of Criminal Justice.
Brad featured Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard, and while that PJ hard rock element is there, it is Smith’s voice and song writing prowess that elevates the group from being just another supergrunge offshoot, as evidenced in the songs Buttercup and 20TH Century from their debut album Shame, and Secret Girl and Those Three Words from Interiors, their second album which enjoyed slight commercial success on the back of the Gossard/PJ connection.
Pigeonhed was a collaboration with producer Steve Fisk (Nirvana’s early recordings for the Sub Pop label), and both their self titled debut (that also featured Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil) and second The Full Sentence, has some innovative rock/dance hybrids full of intriguing electronica music, considering it was released in 1993, when dance music was a largely European trend and sampling a urban hip-hop thing, Pigeonhed was philosophically a million miles from the rainy streets of Seattle. Still infused with some intelligent lyrics from Smith, and loaded with a lot of funk, Pigeonhed’s moody funkrocktronica was not only ahead of its time, it was from an entire alternate universe.
Here is a description written by Andrew Male from Mojo Magazine’s Disc of The Day, featuring Pigeonhed’s 1993 debut album.
“…distorted post-soul minimalism, driven by ailing keyboards, hissing echo and Smith’s eerie Prince-on-Placidyl vocals? Listen to it now and you can hear fragments of Jeff Buckley’s Grace (especially in their ethereal cover of, yes, Amazing Grace) and a complete premonition of Portishead’s bad trip club groove, a year before Dummy emerged out of Bristol. Their next album, 1997’s The Full Sentence got the press and garnered a hit with The Lo Fidelity All Stars (LFAS) remix of Battleflag but this is the album that has lasted, still sounding weird, old, wrong and yards ahead of whatever exciting new soul talent is being foisted upon us this week…”
Battle Flag was Shawn Smith’s flagship sleeper hit, enjoying a bit of dance floor revival thanks not only the LFAS remix and other electronica re-workings and sampling over the years, but also being featured in episodes of Smallville, Queer As Folk US and, most significantly and much cooler, The Sopranos’ ground-breaking first season. It was not the last time Shawn Smith added some atmosphere to Tony Soprano’s postmodern gangster meltdown, having his undeniably cool funk dance track Shake It Like You Just Made Bail (a song that Prince, and many other neo-soul-funk pretenders, lie awake at night in their mansions wishing they could have written a song so dripped in cool), and Pigeonhed’s Like The Man Said featured in some of the series’ classic scenes.
Shawn Smith continues to release solo efforts via his website, and is also currently collaborating with a number of music’s free thinkers, such as the Twilight Singers with Afghan Whig Greg Dulli, and some new electronica musings with DJ Joey Veneziani as Fireside Gospel.
*for more info check out: http://www.shawnsmithsinger.com/