Ben Shepherd has spent his career in the shadows. He spent most of his career as almost an afterthought in Soundgarden, the steady bassist always upstaged by Chris Cornell’s soaring vocals and Kim Thayil’s rapid-fire guitar solos. Perhaps it’s fitting then that Sheperd’s debut solo album is under the cryptic moniker HBS.
One thing is certain: Shepherd didn’t wait all of these years for his first solo album so he could record music that sounds like the rest of his bands. In Deep Owl is a dark and moody collection of mostly slow acoustic songs. The quiet, brooding collection sounds more akin to the Velvet Underground than anything from the Seattle grunge scene. Although far from the dynamic singer that Cornell holds, Shepherd has an impressive vocal range of his own, as followers of his work with Hater and Wellwater Conspiracy have long known. Shepherd channels his inner Mark Lanegan with deep, smoky vocals in the eerie album opener “Stone Pale.” Songs like “The Great Syrup Accident,” however, feature a softer, soothing croon.
Not surprisingly for aSoundgarden alum, Shepherd’s music is rich in tempo shifts, unconventional time signatures, and alternate tunings. In Deep Owl isn’t a hook-driven album, though; it’s a lyrical collection defined by its murky tones and overall ominous mood. “A shadow has seeped inside of me,” Shepherd sings over rattling acoustic strings in “Koda.” The trudging low end of “Neverone Blues” is the perfect backdrop for Shepherd’s melancholic description of a disappointing life in isolation. “Standing too long in the back of your mind/where it’s windy and dark and the rain is poisoned with smiles,” he says in a distorted spoken word.
Shepherd began as a guitarist before teaching himself bass to join Soundgarden for the Badmotorfinger sessions. In Deep Owl finds him expertly playing both instruments while telling stories that are hypnotic and sometimes disturbing. Shepherd proves he’s a gifted poet, though a little subtlety would have improved some moments.
The album’s biggest weakness is its lack of tonal diversity. Darkness can be overpowering at first, but once you have time to adjust, it loses its strength. In the same way, In Deep Owl could have used a break or two from the brooding, with lighter moments serving to enhance the album’s overall bleak feeling. “Robber Baron,” the album’s lone rocker, would be considered the only reprieve, but the album still feels like wallowing in someone else’s misery for forty minutes. That’s just a little too long to wallow.