The Other Guy: Soundgarden's Ben Shepherd

I've always been an "other guy" guy when it comes to my favorite bands. When there's a clear pecking order, in terms of the one or two members of the band who front the band, and write and/or sing most of the songs, I always find it interesting to see what the other members bring to the table beyond just playing an instrument. You don't have to argue that George Harrison is a better singer or songwriter than Lennon or McCartney to take an active interest in his contributions to The Beatles (although hey, some have). And those kinds of dynamics are always interesting to me. In the past, I've made a mix of all of Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo-sung songs, and I kinda wanted to do more stuff like that.

Ben Shepherd is a relatively minor presence in Soundgarden -- of the four members of the best known lineup of the band, he was the last to join, and the least famous or recognizable (especially after Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam). He didn't write any of the band's biggest hits, although he sing parts of all the verses in "Spoonman," which he didn't write, and his only full-on lead vocal in their catalog, "Half," is a weird little 2-minute piece with pitched-up vocals. He led a band, Hater, during Soundgarden's hiatus, but has kept a relatively low profile, and has said he was sleeping on couches and struggling to get by before the recent reunion.

But I've always been intrigued by Ben Shepherd, perhaps because two of his few solo writing credits, "Somewhere" and "Head Down," were standout tracks on the first two Soundgarden albums I heard. He also, I think, has a pretty fantastic bass sound that has really come to be a big part of what I love about the band, that huge lumbering low end beneath the wall of guitars. Bassists never have an easy time standing out or being recognized for their worth in a band with more than one guitarist -- think about it, pretty much every particularly revered or well known rock bassist ever was in a one guitar group. No disrespect to the band's founding bassist Hiro Yamamato (who also had some vocal and songwriting contributions on the early albums), but to me the Soundgarden I love started with Shepherd joining the group. So I thought it'd be interesting to stack all his songwriting credits together and see how they sound, an alternate vision of Soundgarden where he's the primary creative force.

Soundgarden: The Ben Shepherd Writing Credits (Spotify playlist)

1. Somewhere
2. Head Down
3. An Unkind
4. Attrition
5. Half
6. Zero Chance
7. Face Pollution
8. Dusty
9. Never Named
10. Taree
11. Switch Opens
12. Ty Cobb
13. Non-State Actor
14. Been Away Too Long
15. Slaves & Bulldozers
16. Rowing
17. Black Rain
18. By Crooked Steps
19. Exit Stonehenge
20. Jesus Christ Pose
21. Jerry's Garcia's Finger

I arranged the mix by the order of what songs Shepherd had the most to do with. Tracks 1-5 were written solely by Ben Shepherd (the only 5 songs in the Soundgarden catalog that he wrote lyrics for). Tracks 6-13 had music written entirely by Ben Shepherd. Tracks 14-17 had music co-written by Shepherd and one other member of the band. Track 18 had music co-written by Ben Shepherd and two other members of the band. And tracks 19-21 were collaborations between all four members of the band.

There is one Soundgarden song co-written by Ben Shepherd missing from this playlist, the compilation track "HIV Baby," which was lyrically regrettable enough that I'm not too bothered about being unable to include it. A couple of the tracks towards the end are clearly just loose jams that the whole band shared songwriting credit for (including "Exit Stonehenge," a goofy metal track with the lyrics "Jesus I can't feel my penis"). But "Jesus Christ Pose" is pretty amazing and Ben Shepherd definitely deserves some royalties for that bassline.

Still, I think some interesting stuff emerges by hearing all these songs together. I don't know if the guy would be able to write hits like Chris Cornell does routinely, but his stuff always tends to bring in different textures to their records -- the dueling drums on "Head Down," the viola and cello on "Half," the piano banging on "Never Named," the synth horn bursts in "Face Pollution," the mandolin and middle eastern scale-sounding melodies that pop up in a lot of his songs.

I'd started putting this mix together a couple years ago, before the band released King Animal, which of course added a few new songs to the playlist. But I didn't even realize until this week that Ben Shepherd actually released his first solo album, In Deep Owl, under the name HBS in 2013. Having heard only bits of Hater and his other work outside Soundgarden, it's pretty interesting, and definitely expands on the sound of tracks like "Dusty" -- he's worked a lot with Mark Lanegan, and at times he can sing almost just like him. Still, it's cooler to hear his songs with the full force of a great band like Soundgarden behind them.
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