First impressions and assumptions are a funny thing. However, if you knew nothing about California based three-piece Shannon and the Clams and looked at the album covers for their last four records, you could get a ballpark impression of the band’s sound and feel. Take the band’s 2009 debut LP as an example – the pastiche prom photo of the band hints at the sharp-edged, garage rock-infused take on the 60s pop within.
Just as the band’s covers have moved from this ragged scene to the almost fairytale, dream-like cover of 2015’s Gone By The Dawn, so has the band’s sound become cleaner – less screams, more bombast and pop sensibility. In other words, a quick glance at a Shannon and the Clams record gives you an accurate sense of what to expect, music with pure pop at its core. But this begs the question; five albums in, and the flag firmly planted in terms of sound, what do you to keep things fresh? The answer? You through the kitchen sink at it.
First things first, anyone who has listened to even the smallest amount of Shannon and The Clams will probably be familiar with the sounds found on Onion. Ranging from country-tinged garage rock belters (‘Onion’) to crackling, feels-like-it-could-move-a-mountain fuzzed up soul (‘Did You Love Me?’) and everything in between, the 13 tracks here are what Shannon and the Clams do best. They blend various different takes on ‘classic’ pop sounds with the vibrancy and spirit of DIY punk, throwing a fistful of cabaret and theatrics in there for good measure. Honest, heart-wrenching and heavy with sparkle and energy, Onion is sure to go down well with those currently familiar with Shannon and the Clams previous work. Taking into account how good the previous four records were, it’s no mean feat continuing that quality.
But the real beauty and charm is the depth on display throughout Onion, how Shannon and The Clams have taken their kaleidoscopic fascination with pop and added a depth and bombast. On previous LPs, the trio have had a slight feel of MC5 about them, in the sense that they sound like the world’s best, rawest, white-hot pop band. But the new album sees the band in technicolour with wonderful flourishes of keyboard, harmonies and an almost Phil Spector-meets-psychedelia feel to the whole album. The final track ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’ is a perfect example of this. Powerful yet tender, Shannon Shaw’s vocals take centre stage in their characteristic, rough around the edges The Crystals fashion. But it’s the astonishing, reverb-laden vocal harmonies in the background that turn the track into a hairs standing up on the back of your neck moment. It really is that good. A near perfect, intelligent pop moment if 2018 was ever to produce one.
When a band is as good as Shannon and the Clams are, there’s always a genuine concern that it’s going to go a little flat, tepid and lukewarm. But this just isn’t the case on Onion. Volatile in its power and vivid in its imagination and scope, Onion is the sound of a band honing and refining what they do best. First impressions and assumptions are a funny thing, but what is more important is reality in the here and now. That reality crowns Shannon and the Clams’ Onion a triumph and, come 2018, deserves to be judged as one of the best pop records of recent years.
Lead photo: Nadia Lee Cohen