The gale-force frontwoman of Shannon and the Clams collaborates with producer Dan Auerbach on a sparkling debut solo album that sounds like Roy Orbison lost in the Brill Building.
Underground sensations like Shannon Shaw are anomalies these days. As the gale-force singer of Oakland trio Shannon and the Clams, her name has become synonymous with askew glamor and miscreant soulfulness: She and her misfit bandmates have spent nearly a decade sounding like the nails-tough Shangri-Las reborn and resembling hairsprayed-and-glittered John Waters movie extras, crying their eyes out and ready for a fight. (Waters has called them one of his favorite bands: “They’re like my wet dream!” he once proclaimed.) The Clams mixed punk and girl groups with more conviction and maladjusted, leather-clad character than any other band of the late 2000s. Much of the appeal of their raw early records was in the friction of Shaw’s powerhouse pipes—the agony, the mania, the desperate longing they conveyed—as they tore through a busted-up boombox fog. The Clams’ star has never risen too high, and so it has never fallen.
Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys was in a record shop when he first heard their blown-out doo-wop on the stereo and was won over straight away. But the Clams didn’t know of his fandom until an Australian promoter flew them across the planet and relayed that Auerbach had insisted he book them. One DM led to another. Soon Shaw was in Nashville at Auerbach’s Easy Eye studio to work on her glowing solo debut, Shannon in Nashville, with his all-star house band—guys who’d played with Elvis. Shaw hasn’t ditched the Clams: The band also recorded its latest LP, February’s Onion, at Auerbach’s studio and signed to his label. Rock revivalists as famous as the Black Keys are practically nonexistent these days, which makes the serendipity of the story feel a bit fairytale-like. It’s a heartwarming plot twist for an underdog band who recorded their first LP in the living room of a punk house called Telegraph Beach.
Shannon in Nashville is a diamond; it sounds like Roy Orbison and his musicians lost in the Brill Building, and its twinkling, Auerbach-helmed production is IMAX-level vivid within Shaw’s catalog. These old-school masters meet Shaw at the top of her mountain, and she belts out her boldest Aretha-summoning exorcisms of heartbreak and suffering to match their splendor. The vintage sound of Shannon in Nashville is sturdy, warm, and immaculate, from the fireworks of opener “Golden Frames” and the smoky shuffle of “Bring Her the Mirror” onward, with nary a misplaced horn or clap. Through the polished edges and ecstatic backing vocals, the tortured melodrama of Shaw’s songs cuts deeper than ever. She curls the edges of notes like Dolly and maintains the composure of Lesley Gore.
Shaw is an artist who clearly respects the hellish, earth-shattering gravity of tormented emotions. But the greatest song on this wrenching breakup album is not about another person. The simmering ache of “Broke My Own” centers Shaw’s own self-loathing, as she peels back her layers and faces compounded inner demons—faces the fact of breaking her own heart. It’s the most devastating performance she has ever committed to tape. “Don’t worry about this heart of mine,” she sings with chilling resolve. “It’s been busted for a long, long time.” When Shaw lands upon her brashest truth—“My worst enemy is my own flesh and bone”—it is the sound of a person who has dug to the core of her soul and uncovered a lifetime of buried anguish.
Shannon in Nashville never quite scales the heights of “Broke My Own” again. Though the record contains some eccentric edges—“Freddies ‘n‘ Teddies” is her hard-boiled, punk-spirited version of a song like “Irreplaceable,” and “Lord of Alaska” is a bemusing tale of fleeing home—the lyrics can sometimes sit at the surface of a feeling, and you wish the stories said more. Still, Shannon in Nashville feels humbly victorious. The soul-baring piano ballad “I Might Consider” evokes the desperation of the Chantels’ “Maybe,” and when it opens with a fizzy Auerbach blues lick, it’s a reminder of his presence—and of how unlikely it is for the underground and the perilous rock mainstream to intermingle in 2018. Shaw has earned this: For all the dazzling instrumentation here, none comes close to matching her colossal, resilient voice. It’s a thrill to hear Shaw not soundtracking a hypothetical film, but rather starring in her own.
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