by Eric Broome for Mean Street magazine, March 1997
You've probably never heard anything quite like Pigeonhed, the soul-soaked collaboration of musician/producer Steve Fisk and singer Shawn Smith.
"It's a post-modern deconstruction of '70s and early-'80s popular music, specifically with a R&lB and funk focus," says Fisk, trying gamely to explain. "But it doesn't sound like anything from that time. It sounds like something you'd make 20 years later. It's very 'feel'-based, but it's also very self-conscious."
Pigeonhed's second album, The Full Sentence, comes a long three years after the self-titled debut, but it's hardly a case of laziness -- Smith recorded discs with Brad and Satchel during the gap, while the tireless Fisk produced records by artists like Low, Unwound and the Geraldine Fibbers as well as completing an album with his veteran instrumental band, Pell Mell. In fact, Fisk is in the studio as we speak, beginning work on another Pell Mell disc. Despite years of stellar production credits, his own music remains his first love.
This passion is obvious upon hearing Pigeonhed's ambitious new disc. Both tribute and parody, The Full Sentence
stitches together a variety of familiar urban moods and adds a chilly ironic spin, building an eerie tension between yearning melody and robotic thump. While the debut concentrated on chunky grooves and production tricks, the new album focuses squarely on songwriting, coming up aces on seductive tracks like "It's Like The Man Said," "Battle Flag," "Glory Bound" and "Fire's Comin' Down." Styles range from dreamy balladry to lusty soul to aching gospel to git-down bump 'n' grind, while guitar heroes like Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains) and Helios Creed flesh out the sound with rousing cameos.
Still, the star of the show is Smith, whose versatile voice leaps from throaty growl to tender falsetto without missing a note. Fisk purposely toned down the vocal effects this time, in order to better showcase the singing and lyrics.
"There's so much processing on the last record that God knows what he's saying," Fisk grins. "And half of the time, it's backwards. The first record was all about manipulated samples and vocals going in and out of machines, whereas this record is a pretty straight-up representation of what Shawn does."
This crafty blend of influences has some serious crossover potential. At last, there's a place where Portishead, Prince and Pavement fans can meet. Could Pigeonhed become Sub Pop's next major breakthrough?
"Could be," shrugs Fisk. "It's been scary what's been happening in the first couple of weeks. We're getting all kinds of little indicators that this could do something very interesting."
Certainly, the album should outsell the debut, which was unfortunately released at the height of the grunge craze. It was a classic case of bad timing. "For America, yeah," he agrees. "I mean, the whole time the acid-house thing was going on, it was just 'disco music' in Seattle. There wasn't any acid house going on there -- no one even went to clubs. Pigeonhed was way too slow to have anything to do with that anyway. Even Massive Attack hadn't broken in America when the first Pigeonhed record came out. I had friends who tried to work the first Massive Attack record, and they couldn't do anything with it. When the Pigeonhed record came out, the same thing happened, pretty much. But America's more savvy to what's going on in Europe now."
Touring is another important factor. Being largely a home-studio project, Pigeonhed hasn't played live yet, but this could change if the new record takes off.
"It's a strong possibility," Fisk says. "On the first record, we had a lot of pressure to tour, but the first record was kinda unperformable because of the vocal treatments and looping, and the fact that some of the songs had four or five things going on at the same time. We didn't want to go onstage with a bunch of pre-recorded crap, you know? But there is talk of trying to figure out a way to play these songs live, instead of going onstage with tons of electronics and things like that."
Perhaps even a Pigeonhed/Pell Mell double bill?
"I wouldn't do it," Fisk laughs. "I'd have to play in both bands. Fuck that!"
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