With Sleep Talk, Shannon and the Clams blast rock's ghosts of the past into the future
Shannon, a self-described square-but-morbid kid, admits to loving Roy Orbison's "Crying." "Any teenager death ballad, I was all over," she says. A tragic mood is conjured on Sleep Talk's "Half Rat," where the incessantly repetitive lyric longs for a soul mate's return. It's almost like when a loved one dies and you dream about them being alive, only to be disappointed when you wake up to the heartbreaking reality that nothing will ever bring them back. It's no wonder that without a release other than singing, so many of the voices from the past were compelled to do some amazing things.
Raspy and powerful, Shannon's voice has become a signature trademark. She shreds words, wails, and lets loose with an extended growl on "Done With You." Her vocal delivery is raw, real, and out of control — one of a kind. Her vocals are one reason that it's misleading to tag Shannon and the Clams as simply retro — it's hard to imagine a June Cleaver-type belting out songs in this fashion, though maybe someone like Wanda Jackson would be up for the task.
"I think it's out-of-body," Shannon, says when asked about singing. "I just sometimes feel kind of possessed on stage, or like I'm excreting odd toxins or something." She notes that other dynamic vocalists like Tina Turner, James Brown, and Irma Thomas bring a similarly unique intensity to live performance.
Wanda Jackson is a queen of rock 'n' roll, but it was another Jackson who inspired Shannon to get up on stage sing in public for the first time, at a karaoke bar during her "lowest of lows." She performed a ballad famously delivered by a little boy who, sadly, was adult ahead of his time. "I didn't sing publicly at all till I started playing [music] around three years ago, and I just knew I really needed to sing "Ben" [by Michael Jackson], and I needed to sing it right away," she explains. "I didn't care about being self-conscious." After being accepted by her "grizzled karaoke comrades," she found the strength and confidence to perform her own songs.
Cody, the Clams' co-songwriter, is also no slouch behind the mic. On Sleep Talk's "Old Man Winter," he sounds brilliant doing his rockabilly best, exaggerating the whooping, keening sounds Buddy Holly could make with his voice. He's pretty keen on the originality of vocalists Hasil Adkins, Joey Ramone, and Marc Bolan, preferring sound over lyrical content.
"Amazing singing is something that feels to the singer like a compulsion or a nervous tick, as if that singer can't do anything to keep themselves from crying out," he says. "They must do it or they'll go nuts, and they just invent these bizarre sounds."
WE JUST WANNA BE WEIRD
On the subject of songwriting, Cody uses vivid imagery to describe a T-Rex- that "kidnaps" him and takes him away to a "glittery, horny, spaced-out fantasy world." I guess Clam nation can't all be doom and gloom. Indeed, a typical Shannon and the Clams show finds the band in colorful costume, making inventive use of capes, fast-food outfits, and other assorted disguises. This past Halloween they even dressed as Devo for a night of cover songs.
Shannon and the Clams' affinity for cartoons, jingles, and campy commercialism is apparent. On Sleep Talk's cover art, photographed by Keith Aguiar, Shannon and Cody are buried in what looks like a landfill of stuffed animal nostalgia and familiar characters. The imagery is indicative of their bubblegum side and love of Jim Henson's Muppets. Cody points out that the people behind those Muppet tunes were pretty solid songwriters. On "The Cult Song," listeners might even detect a vocal tribute to the Cookie Monster, if not Keith Moon circa "Boris the Spider."