Reviewed: Shannon & the Clams, Rat Columns, Astronauts, Etc. 

Wherein our music editor defends nostalgia, camp, vulnerability, and lifestyle brand jams against snobs and their value judgments.

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Shannon & the Clams Gone by the Dawn

The charge goes that rock 'n' roll is depleted of ideas, its proponents doomed to reclaim old moves instead of confronting the future with something new, like, well, electronic music. There's little to counter the notion that the genre is very nostalgic, but so long as memories of the past and attempts to mimic it remain imperfect, there's reason to keep listening. Pastiche is lame, a waste of energy, but often the bands accused of nostalgia actually misrepresent their source material, mangling it in curious and novel ways as they resurrect it. That's the case with the best songs by Oakland's Shannon & the Clams, a group that's clearly infatuated with dated doo-wop, surf, and girl group sounds, but one that's luckily too eccentric for mere emulation.

Highlights from the trio's fourth album, Gone by the Dawn, prove it. "Corvette" is a warped glam song, with guitar notes that sound like rusty teardrops, and the vocal interplay between Cody Blanchard and Shannon Shaw, an arresting display of stubborn contrast. "Point of Being Right" features a familiar throwback shuffle and vocal phrasing out of a Sixties soul romp, only it's a little too fast and the fuzz guitar squelches a little too rudely for a retro exercise. As on much of Gone by the Dawn, Shaw's husky lows abut Blanchard's siren highs, harmonizing in spite of the vast space in between.

Even Gone by the Dawn's more purely vintage-sounding numbers show merit. Shaw's voice is so traditionally robust and engaging that it tends to smother inhibitions, trivializing worries about how closely the band adheres to distant influences or not. And beyond charges of nostalgia, those who dismiss the Clams as camp are snobs. The song "The Bog" sounds pilfered from a budget horror score, sure, but while the frenetic high-hat beat, snake-charmer lead, and anecdotal lyrics scan as goofy, they're also rife with creative invention and distinct playing. Indeed, when Shannon & the Clams reaches back toward voices in the past, it finds its own instead. (Hardly Art)

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Rat Columns Do You Remember Real Pain / Fooling Around

Since leaving the Bay Area for his native Australia — and disbanding the much-missed local post-punk group Rank/Xerox in the process — David West's catalogue under the Rat Columns moniker has swelled to include his very finest releases to date. Where earlier albums Sceptre Hole and Leaf found West's breathy hooks mingling with saturated, shimmery gauze, his two more recent EPs dial back the shoegaze influence. That allows his chief assets — vocals and chord progressions — to assume the foreground. There, they beam.

The seven-minute title track of Fooling Around is an expansive, repetitive classicist rock song. There are few chords, a cooing vocal turnaround, and some bubbly melodic garnish. Eventually, the ginger riff gets doubled and emboldened by keys, then dappled with searching little guitar leads. It's a great song, propelled by the sort of quiet confidence that makes the title track on Do You Remember Real Pain even better.

Released by the reputable European label Adagio, Do You Remember Real Pain rewards front-to-back listening — but "Do You Remember Real Pain" demands repeat visits. For an artist who often muddles his voice — or not — the opening is bold. It's just palm-muted guitar and West's unfettered voice uttering, Do you remember real pain/Do you remember yellow T-shirt stains/And how it felt when you walked empty hallways/If you remembered, if you remembered, you wouldn't act this way. The song swells from there — with West alternately leaving the impression of an intimate whisper or exasperated, pitchy outburst — but the titular refrain, repeated with more and more perceptible effort, crystallizes and owns the endearing sense of vulnerability that earlier material only suggested as a latent trait. (Adagio / Blackest Ever Black)

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Astronauts, Etc. Mind Out Wandering

Although he's a formally trained pianist, bandleader, and songwriter, Anthony Ferraro's arthritis has diverted him from rigorous classical music to bedroom pop, which isn't to say that Mind Out Wandering, his first album as Astronauts, Etc., doesn't evidence serious chops. The East Bay artist, who's busy touring as a member of Chaz Bundick's Toro Y Moi seemingly all year this year, tapped ace players, such as Bells Atlas' Derek Barber, for the record — players savvy enough to hold back and let Ferraro's material speak in soft, understated tones.

Opener "If I Run" is so strong that sequencing it first threatens to undermine the album's balance. There's a supple crosshatch of melody that intersects piano, voice, and acoustic guitar with such attention to attack and technique that it evokes the old benchmarks of rock production by bands such as Steely Dan. Toro Y Moi bore similar influences earlier this year on What For? Mind Out Wandering confirms how closely aligned the artists' interests in production detail is. But where Bundick opted for a heavily syncopated ensemble feel, Ferraro and his band prize restraint, privileging twinkling leads and spectral piano as textural elements beneath Ferraro's precise falsetto.

In the past, some critics eyed Toro Y Moi suspiciously on account of the music's palatability, the ease with which it accommodated the marketing goals of a hip clothing brand, for instance. That's more of a value judgment than an aesthetic one, but listeners might similarly find Astronauts, Etc. hewing so close to safety that Mind Out Wandering ends up being easy to ignore. Many of the songs proceed at the same tempo. The drumbeats are largely interchangeable. The gloves stay on. It's anti-swagger. For an album called Mind Out Wandering by an artist whose handle indicates an interest in adventure, it's pretty stationary. (Hit City USA)


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