Sound — 9
Ben Shepherd, longtime bassist for Soundgarden, has released his first official solo album under the moniker HBS, although I'm not entirely sure what the "H" stands for. This album has similarities to his past releases with Hater and Wellwater Conspiracy as it has a cool mix of psychedelia, garage rock, and acoustic jams. Some Soundgarden songs penned by Shepherd are also good examples of the sound conjured on this solo album: "Zero Chance," "Head Down," "An Unkind." "In Deep Owl" has a much more acoustic bluesy feel, so don't expect this record to be all out rock blasts and loud fuzz jammers. The opener "Stone Pale" goes slow on an acoustic guitar with Shepherd's deep voice going over it bleakly, comparable to a song off one of Mark Lanegan's early solo releases. "Koda" is a little dreamy acoustic track ironically put at the beginning of the album with vocals that sound like Shepherd from his Hater days. "Collide" begins with a quick acoustic line then floods in with strumming and Sherperd's distinct bass playing, which carries the song along with climbing and complex duets between the guitars. I think I also hear a mandolin that becomes more and more present in the song as it progresses and ends with a melancholy jam of all the instruments. "Loose Ends" grounds the spacey vibes of "Collide"; this fourth track could easily be the single of this album given it's pop structure. "Neverone Blues" is a dark track with a weirder song structure and a strange siren at 2:05 min; the bass and guitars play interesting parts atop each other with Shepherd's voice low in the mix. "Veritas" and "Baron Robber" rock and roll and pound like a good Soundgarden song. "The Blue Book" is eclectic; reminds me of "Half" from "Superunknown." The album gets even more diverse with a saxophone on "Keystone" that drones on nicely to a loud solo hollering behind the falling bass lines that run the song. There's a nice break in the solo at the 2:00 min mark that blows your mind when it blares back in again and then the song closes with Shepherd singing like he's almost happy. "The Great Syrup Accident" has another crazy arrangement of bass and guitar that verges on hard rock but still remains chill. The last track "The Train You Can't Win" is like the opener: bluesy, acoustic, and folkish. The contrabass gives an eerie background to the song and it ends with an outro kinda like John Fahey.
Lyrics — 8
Shepherd's lyrics have always seemed more cryptic and mysterious than Cornell's lyrics, but his Hater material also shows him just having fun with lyrics and words. He manages to be funny, serious, and personal all at the same time on this album. The opening and closing songs share a theme of death and country images like "moonshine" and "beasts out at night" which is more Appalachian to me if anything (Shepherd covered West Virginian country singer Billy Edd Wheeler on Hater's first album). Shepherd admittedly describes a personal matter on "Loose Ends," possibly symbolic of grunge and the Seattle scene nowadays as he says, "They've turned on their heels and walked away / Now when they shine it starts to rain / I feel alone when I see their face / Loose ends are my friends." He gives some cynicism on "Veritas": "Time doesn't know what you mean." Shepherd either keeps it serious and somber or cool and nostalgic like on "Keystone" and "The Great Syrup Accident" saying, "Watching outlines of laughing summer tides / As their memories slip from open arms." Overall, he uses many images from nature like dirt, the moon, and starfish (Not to mention the frogs mumbling on "Koda").
Overall Impression — 8
It's safe to say almost all the songs on the album are distinctly different from each other, and the album is a great elaboration/exploration of Shepherd's bass style that we know from Soundgarden. I've noted folk, blues, and psychedelia on this album, which is kinda close to the mix we get from Mark Lanegan, but Shepherd manages to not sound as raspy and dark as Lanegan with dreamier tunes like "Collide." The chorus of "The Train You Can't Win" even sounds a little like a chorus from Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush." Shepherd is also different with his song arrangements and switches them up often. Like the strange siren in "Neverone Blues" and frogs in "Koda," this album is sprinkled with oddities and unexpected instrumentation like the short collection of noises and owl hoots at the end of "Veritas." This shows Shepherd's various and successful experimentations that we won't see on any recent Soundgarden album. In an interview for this solo album, Shepherd said, "I tried to do everything in one take to make it as real feeling as possible." I think he accomplished that and made a cool album; my favorite songs are "Collide," "Keystone," and "Loose Ends."