As I do not generally keep up with music news, it came as some surprise to learn that Shawn Smith singer with bands such as Satchel, Pigeonhed and Brad (as well as a solo artist) had died 11 months ago.
I first became aware through listening to ‘Shame’ by Brad, a 1993 album from a group most notable at the time for containing Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard on guitar. Being 17 when this album came out and among a group of friends for the first time with a shared sense of difference from most of those our age, the nascent grunge scene, along with british bands like Radiohead the Verve, Suede and Manic Street Preachers – formed a nexus of music that felt like it had an authenticity about its voice in relation to our experiences.
In this context, Shawn Smith’s light and sharp-smooth vocal, which never descends from being absolutely real in its expression – came to engender a sense of rare quality and yet he was largely passed by in terms of mainstream success. And wasn’t for lack of quality projects.
With Regan Hagar (also of Brad) and John Hoag, they formed Satchel, whose first album 1994’s ‘EDC’ was threaded with samples from Reservoir Dogs and contained some very striking songs, some of which have continued to come back to me over time. Like Mr. Pink. An eerily poised drone rock track that hovers over distorted tones with Smith’s vocal dancing easily, it moves into a heavier riffing terrain at the chorus, but Shawn’s voice is there, taking us through it with a stiffening of our resolve, its texturally a very beautiful electric guitar drone too.
‘It’s so clear
Seems right out of the sky
Love never dies‘
As if to confirm Smith’s undoubted capacity and quality, I was re-introduced to him again a short while later when I recognised his voice from a track being played by a friend, of a relatively obscure US beat based band called Pigeonhed. While I recall feeling that the opening track of their eponymous first album was blistering (‘Theme from Pigeonhed’ below) I was less gripped by the album as a whole but yet again here was the sudden ubiquitous musical difference of Shawn Smith.
Three years later, when university had ended and I was sharing a house with the band I was in at the time, we were blown away by the 1998 release by Lo Fidelity Allstars ‘How to Operate With a Blown Mind’. Their melange of beat and song styles, well crafted and knowing, yet underpinned by some genuinely strange and effective songs, like ‘I used to fall in love’ (below). A piano song that initally gestates alongside the sound of an ongoing explosion (sampled from Alfred Hitchcock’s the Birds).
Lo Fi Allstars were being psychically steered at the time by Dave Randall, aka Wrekked Train, whose urging, drawling, stentorian growl (much in love with the ‘best at that kind of voice’ Mark E Smith). But as a sound and as an album, it was a slippery, powerful ally, with its extra dimension invoking of an instructional for the post-mind blown condition.
On ten minute burner ‘Vision Incision‘ they managed to conjure the high planes of dance ‘while we travel at magnificent speeds around the universe…’ or the spirit involved in the statement ‘I’ll take you on a journey into tomorrow, together we’ll banish all pain and sorrow…’ The record possessed in that voice a courage of experience and the knowledge that there were expressive realms capable of opening different kinds of awarenss, perception and experience.
Nowhere did this seem more evident than on the album’s quietly demented introduction ‘Warming up the Brain Farm‘. Which places us immediately at the door of a descriptive narrative around a break from reality in the context of the psycho-medical assemblage ‘the patient’s best intentions have sadly faltered… As the clock spits, clicks, and time speeds by in the form of a neon snake…‘
Randall and the band parted ways while touring the album, which immediately sank a lot of the underground momentum which had been gathering. Part of Brighton (and Skint Records) Big Beat scene, they had escaped the overwhelming inanity of the scene with what remains a fascinating listen as an album but here too was Shawn Smith.
Cut and sampled across an entire verse of ‘Battleflag’ from Pigeonhed’s 2nd album ‘The full sentence’ in 1997. It was a strange melding that should never have worked, Smith and Wrekked Train but it does. Moving from Randall’s electric-english annunciation to Smith’s soul snarl as a chorus is certainly a transformation. ‘I’m blown to the maxim, two hemispheres babbling…’ Randall offers in between.
I stopped coming across Shawn Smith in the same way after that, but he had a profound effect in all the ways and guises I encountered him. Mercurial with the smoothness of his voice, nearly imperceptible with the vessels of his groups, making music that searched feelings and reported back with honesty and purpose.