Noise Pop 2012: The Soft Pack @ Cafe du Nord 2/23/12

From the 60s surf rock of Surf Club and Fidlar to the gritty rockabilly of Shannon and the Clams to The Soft Pack’s mix of 70s punk and 80s garage, Cafe Du Nord functioned as a four-decade time machine on Thursday night.

It was Shannon and the Clams that stole the show, though, amidst a sea of beach pop, all despite the fact that a (hopefully well-meaning) fan told Shannon Shaw two songs in that it all sounded bad. It didn’t. Quite the opposite, in fact. Musically, the band is ostensibly an homage to the 1950s — evoking a sense of rain on a retro prom night — but aesthetically, they’re all over the place. With his pompadour, rainbow suspenders, bright red bowtie, and Elvis-style footwork, guitarist Cody Blanchard more strictly adhered to the burger-and-milkshake motif.

Singer and bassist Shannon Shaw, on the other hand, represents a less straightforward range of bygone eras. With her blond locks swept into a half beehive, bangs framing dramatic cat-eye makeup, a simple white heart strung on a chain around her neck, and sky blue fingernails, she was channeling equal parts Brigitte Bardot and punk princess. You could see it, too, in the instruments the two were wielding: Shaw played a glittery gold bass while Blanchard’s guitar was the iconic seafoam green of vintage automobiles.

What really strikes the listener, however, are less the outfits than the reverb-soaked voice, or should I say, voices. Blanchard actually contributes a fair portion of the vocal parts in Shannon and the Clams, a fact that isn’t so immediately apparent, at least to me, on the records. That’s no easily accomplished feat given the gravel in Shaw’s powerful growl, which has a tendency to turn into a hellcat’s yell at a moment’s notice, and thus could overpower a lesser vocalist. Somehow, Blanchard holds his own against her. On stage they’re as capable of crooning as breaking into bloodcurdling wails, both of which occurred in “Osmo,” which begins seductively but quickly devolves into a lover’s desperate plea. When she reaches the song’s climax (“Oh I, I know I love you”) it’s as if the singer had a confession to make and it couldn’t wait one minute more.

Much of the joy of seeing the band live, however, has to do with seeing the expressions on their faces, and the way their bodies move. Every time they launched into the chorus of the title track of their latest LP, “Sleep Talk,” for example, Shaw’s lips curled into the sneer that’s audible on the recording.

In addition to some standards from the band’s debut, I Wanna Go Home, and their follow-up, Sleep Talk, the trio performed a pair of brand new songs. The first, sung by Blanchard, had a marching beat behind the lyrics and might have been called “I Will Remember You.” But never fear; it had none of the weepy sentimentality of the Sarah MacLachlan number, and just a touch of the Dropkick Murphys. “Rat House” was the second song, sung by Shaw, which featured a refrain of “I don’t wanna die in the rat house, baby” and could have been written in the wake of an Orwellian nightmare. But seeing Shannon and the Clams at a venue like this one was nothing short of a dream.

When The Soft Pack took the stage, the streamers came down. Although frontman Matt Lamkin was dressed like a postman straight off the set of Pleasantville and had a habit of holding the microphone with two fingers like a cigarette, the sound had distinctly progressed beyond that era. The lovelorn sometime sock hop scene was replaced by a wary post-consumer existence, perhaps reflective of the band’s move to LA by way of San Diego.

Early on, Lamkin mentioned that they were selling Muslims records at the merch table — the original name of the band that they eventually dropped due to controversy — an announcement which was met with audible cheers from the audience. Truth be told, I enjoyed the lead singer’s banter a bit more more than his songs. Presenting a new tune, he said, “This is about my neighborhood in West Hollywood and transvestite prostitutes. I’m a fan.” Based on that track, it’s clear he’s also a fan of ska, which was already apparent in the rhythm but made moreso as the saxophone chimed in with a wail. That same sax appeared in later songs as well, to varying degrees of success.

At their best, the band is infectious, foot-tapping surf rock with simple yet incisive lyrics. In a concert setting, however, you can’t make out any of them through Lamkin’s intentionally (one supposes) monotonous vocals, except on the slower numbers, such as “Mexico.” The penultimate number was “Answer to Yourself,” their hit single and, clearly, the song that everyone had been waiting to hear. “I think I’m gonna die before my time has come,” is perhaps a nod to the notorious 27 Club, but it seems to me like a lot of melodrama for a band that sounds like it’s made of sand and waves. They then went on to close with “C’Mon,” a two-minute uptempo number that epitomizes the sound of their self-titled debut.

After thanking Surf Club for opening, Lamkin added, “I told them they should move out of Stockton because Pavement moved out of Stockton.” It seemed everyone that night was harkening back to some distant past, but by closing time it only made me nostalgic for Shannon Shaw.

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