If there is a playbook of rock band moves, the plan to "go somewhere weird and faraway to write and record new songs" would be on one of its most weathered pages. The reasoning behind the move is simple — new environments and situations inspire new ideas, etc. — and countless bands have tried it. It worked for the Rolling Stones. It worked for Bon Iver.
It didn't work for Shannon and the Clams.
Hoping for a whole new feel and perspective for their second album, the Oakland punk-oldies trio retreated to that most quintessential of inspirational places: A cabin in the woods. Unfortunately, they did not leave with the garage-pop equivalent of Walden, Exile on Main Street, or even (thank god) another For Emma, Forever Ago.
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"What really happened was we ate a lot of large breakfasts, struggled with mouse infestation, had spiders crawl on me 'till I awoke from my slumber, found '80s porn under the spare bed, ate spaghetti with my aunt and uncle, and recorded very few songs, very badly," reports singer and bassist Shannon Shaw. "While recording, the songs sounded perfect and amazing. When we got home, they were terrible."
So much for the cabin play. But Shannon and the Clams then retreated homeward, to the abode of guitarist and singer Cody Blanchard — and decided to push the limits of rhythm, harmony, and percussion there. "We went out on some scary limbs while holding a skillet of biscuits and gravy, if ya know what I mean," Shaw says.
You will know what she means. The resulting album, Dreams in the Rat House, sounds like a fevered vision inspired by the girl-group section at San Francisco record shop Rooky Ricardo's, a mélange of rhythms and harmonies from classic '50s pop salted with thick layer of East Bay grit. The retro-garage sound is a popular one these days, especially in the Bay Area. But the version of it on Dreams in the Rat House cuts close to the original artifact while also emphasizing what Shannon and the Clams add: There is Shaw's untrained voice, husky, weathered, a little hoarse, and never less than redolent of feeling, as on the swinging "Rip Van Winkle." Blanchard's vocals, meanwhile, sound like a rabid animal. On "Bed Rock," it's easy to picture a feral human demanding the delivery of sweets to maintain his perfectly horizontal posture. Phil Spector would never have let such awesome ugliness taint his perfect pop, even if he would've approved of the vocal harmonies.
The general rawness of the Clams' sound comes, counter-intuitively, through a great deal of work. This crew does not use fancy vintage gear to get its sound — everything on Dreams in the Rat House was recorded digitally. "That surprises people a lot, and I take it as a sizable compliment that we were able to fool them," Blanchard says. "You can do good things with digital, you just can't be lazy with it. You have to try, and you have to operate the equipment outside of presets and things."
For Blanchard, though, the sonic manipulation is less about producing some museum-quality sonic replica, and more about capturing a quality that vintage records had somewhat unintentionally. "I really like the warm, blown-out, busted sound of an old recording," he says. "It's so mellow and blasted, very imperfect and raw. It doesn't sound like a polished, finished product. It actually sounds like a moment that was recorded onto tape, which is what it is, instead of a bunch of layers of clean isolated construction, which is how I think of modern recording."
Shannon and the Clams tried to produce those moments on their own by recording everything live at one time, rather than tracking instruments separately and mixing them all together at the end. And they succeeded. Dreams in the Rat House ably captures the taut energy of the band's recent live shows, which feel something like a super-tight punk rock band leading a sock-hop. Blanchard mewls into his mic, easily pulling off various guitar tricks like staccato picking; drummer Ian Amberson bellows at subterranean depths while keeping the rhythm at hip-swaying dimensions; and Shaw lets her voice soar and crack gorgeously while soaking up more than her share of the attention. They can be an excellent live band, which is why it's surprising to hear Blanchard report that he's often disappointed in their live presence. "I just always think we could do better, but people always seem to love it regardless," he says.
Loving it is understandable, even if Shannon and the Clams aren't the most dynamic or adventurous of trios. They may only do one thing — sharpen vintage pop and rock 'n' roll to a raw new edge — but, as Dreams in the Rat House illustrates, they've gotten quite good at that one thing. And they didn't even need a cabin in the woods to do it.