Review Summary: Desperate living..
In the summer of 2010, I got a call from an old friend who, breathless with excitement, told me that his drag punk band was playing El Mocambo (what used to be Toronto’s version of CBGB’s) with the Detroit Cobras. He was giddy as all hell in the days leading up to the concert, but when we talked after the date, seemed considerably more cheerless about it. The trip was marred by border police disallowing him and his crew from bringing their equipment (asshole cabinets) over from Buffalo into Ontario, forcing them to rent on the fly once they got to the city, which according to him, screwed with their ‘sound.’ At the gig itself, Rachel Nagy, the lead singer of the Cobras was apparently too ***ed out on heroin to stand up on her own. There were issues with money going missing from the lockbox at the front table, and skinny drink tabs given to the bands by the bar manager. He finally added that one of the other bands on the bill were the salvaging point of the show, pulling up to play a fantastic two-hour set, and making the night worthwhile to everyone in the club. Their name, that he read off a CD he bought that night, was Shannon and the Clams.
I’d heard stray songs from the band before, but the incident prompted me to delve into them properly. Besides the glowing review from my friend, I liked the cheeky name and knew they were loosely related to other great live acts like Hunx and his Punx, the Reatards, Protomartyr and the Fresh and Only’s. I understand why the band were billed alongside the Detroit Cobras. On paper alone, they walk similar lines. A pin-up female-led punk band that play 50’s-style tunes in razor-sharp rock n’roll. Their singers mash themselves into corsets and have some pretty impressive pipes. By contrast, Shannon and the Clams play more doo-wop and rockabilly originals than they do soul covers. And on the whole, their band projects a much cleaner and manicured image than the Cobras’ junkie debauchery (not that that’s a particularly bad thing).
“Sleep Talk” is the Clams’ second album, released in 2011 collaboratively by Seattle’s Hardly Art Records and 1-2-3-4-Go! from the band’s hometown of Oakland. The city drips from their sound, as bitter and rough as the Raiders logo, and as happily sun-struck as any lifetime Californian would be
Shannon Shaw, the singer, is in perpetual spotlight here. It’s easy to see why. Her vocals are so abrasively husky while keeping melodic, that one can only imagine how much damage she could do in a more hardcore outfit. She also packs the robust sass in person, a stout over-lipsticked thing, who plays a mean bass. Exploitation movies, John Waters kitsch and a penchant for skimpy brassieres all get a notch here.
The guitar-work is polished and honed, by turns slinking around Shaw’s vocals and slicing through on the choruses. The solos are short, minimal and so jittery, you feel your knees wobble. It’s music for dancing, for getting tattooed, for chain-smoking, for slicking back hair and smashing headlights.
Despite the raspy vocal work and the restless guitars, the band stick to the doo-wop aesthetic for most of the album, keeping a relaxed slightly ephedrine-like pace to the proceedings. When they do change gears, like on “King of the Sea” and “Toxic Revenge,” their punk roots come crashing through, making for driving, whip-smart bursts.
“Sleep Talk” is at its best when it lets Shaw wail and harmonize away. The songs gain a soulfully menacing tint that fits perfectly with the band’s image, a sort of Little Red Riding Hood with a straight razor in her boot. “Done with You” is one of the best cuts here, a swinging tune, with Shaw intoning and crooning while guitars cannonball along around her. But there is no shortage of sinister doo-wop ditties on this half-hour stretch. “Oh Louie,” “The Woodsman” and the title track all capture that middle line between sweet and evil perfectly.
By now, Shannon and the Clams are four albums in, and while neither originality nor variety are strongpoints for bands like them, it’s a simple enough pleasure hearing someone have so much fun cutting songs and being so good at it. If their live act stays as boisterous and catchy, I’ll always look forward to new music from this prom band from hell.