Shannon and the Clams have built a cult following on the strength of their fusion of 1950s doo-wop and ’80s punk, and the robust, soulful voice of singer-bassist Shannon Shaw. Produced by the Black Keys’s Dan Auerbach, Onion tones down the Oakland-based quartet’s propensity for quirk and polishes their music’s lo-fi edges for a sleeker, more accessible effort that nevertheless remains steeped in vintage influences.
Onion follows 2015’s Gone by the Dawn, whose structure was informed by the heartache of two recent breakups, as an exploration of the struggle to summon the nerve to make oneself vulnerable again. Shaw’s virtuosic voice drives the album’s most emotionally raw track, “Did You Love Me,” opening tenderly before surging to a throat-shredding wail as she mournfully sings about internalizing rejection to the point of feeling “brittle and cracked.” She adds an irascible snarl to the jangly, upbeat “If You Could Know,” singing of the possibility of new love being both a source of fear and a life-affirming thrill.
Guitarist Cody Blanchard, who often swaps vocal duties with Shaw, is more prone to resisting love, which he describes on “I Never Wanted Love” as a trap for the lonely. But he embraces the cliché of chasing after unattainable dreams on “I Leave Again” and the romantic notion of being a runaway starving artist on “Backstreets.” Though his rasp acts as a fine complement to Shaw’s own gravelly delivery (especially on “Tell Me When You Leave”), there are fewer duets here than there are on past Shannon and the Clams efforts, with Shaw too often relegated to doing backup vocals. Which is a shame, as Blanchard’s voice doesn’t pack the same emotive wallop as Shaw’s.
The band seems more buttoned-up than on past releases. There’s nothing here approaching 2015’s fierce, roiling punk anthem “Knock ’Em Dead” or 2013’s psychobilly freakout “Bed Rock.” They’re less prone throughout the album to wild tangents or indulgence in their offbeat sensibilities, the title track’s playful mock-psychotherapy—“Well, I’m working on it/Holy shit/I didn’t know I had so many problems”—being a rare exception.
Part of this may be due to several tracks on Onion drawing inspiration from tragedy, namely the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire that claimed 36 lives in the band’s hometown of Oakland. In one of the album’s more poignant moments, Shaw gently advocates for self-preservation in the aftermath of trauma on “Don’t Close Your Eyes.” Otherwise, with a reduced emphasis on camp, Onion mostly attempts to wring earnest feeling from platitudes.