Album review: Seattle's Shawn Smith was a singular singer
At this point, it's utterly unbelievable how many singers from the Seattle music explosion of the early '90s have died young. How is it that so much era-defining music could come from one geographical area, and how is it that so many of the vocalists from the bands that made that music left the Earth too early, and continue to?
Just look at the list of those who have passed: there's Andy Wood, whose death led his Mother Love Bone bandmates to eventually form Pearl Jam and inspired Chris Cornell to record a tribute album to him called "Temple of the Dog." Only a few years ago, TOTD toured for the first time, and then Cornell later took his own life an hour after playing his last show with Soundgarden. There's, of course, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, whose 25-year death anniversary came on April 5, the same day that Alice in Chains' Layne Staley died in 2002.
While people on the internet talked about how tragic it was that both Cobain and Staley had passed on the same day, another remarkable Seattle vocalist was not long for the world. Shawn Smith — the honey-voiced singer who had been friends with Wood and eventually played in the band Brad with Pearl Jam's Stone Gossard — passed away in his sleep due to complications from diabetes. He was only 53.
It's the kind of death that has become all too common for talented musicians who are able to grow a cult audience but not break through to the next level. Smith often spoke of being broke, so it's hard not to wonder if he could've lived if only he had the means to afford the health care he needed. The struggles of underground musicians to stay healthy are well-documented — one only needs to look up all the GoFundMe pages of known artists who must turn to the site to stave off bankruptcy in the wake of a serious medical event. It's an epidemic, and it's not being talked about enough.
In any event, Shawn Smith is dead, and he leaves behind a stunning catalog of music that evinces a man who was an excellent songwriter and a simply astounding vocalist. Unlike his grungy brethren, Smith was a Prince and Stevie Wonder devotee who could sing R&B in falsetto just as well as he could drop into a lower register to do Van Halen covers.
Smith's career really started with Brad, and that group's "Shame" and "Interiors" albums are both some of his best work. Songs like "Buttercup," "Screen," "The Day Brings" and "Secret Girl" are key points, but both records are solid in their entirety. Brad's later albums have less magic in them, but there are lots of good tracks scattered throughout.
Smith's group Satchel was an outgrowth of Brad that shared drummer Regan Hagar, and their records "EDC" and "The Family" are both essential listening. The former boasts "Suffering," one of Smith's best recorded moments, and the latter contains the glowing "Isn't That Right" and the emphatic "Not Too Late," among other standouts.
Pigeonhed was an electro-pop duo with producer Steve Fisk, and it presented an opportunity for Smith to make Prince-like electronic music. Songs like "Theme From Pigeonhed" and the savage "Battle Flag" were danceable and also a bit heady.
Then there's his long-running solo career, which produced gorgeous tracks like "Wrapped in My Memory" and "On the Banks," among many, many others.
Shawn Smith now joins the too-long list of Seattle casualties. Maybe that's how his name will finally get mentioned in the same breath as Cornell's and Cobain's and, hell, even Hendrix's. It certainly deserves to be.
Artist: Shawn Smith
Tony Bennett reviews albums for the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.