November 2021 Rock/Pop Record Reviews

Shannon And The Clams: Year of the Spider
Easy Eye Sound (16-bit/44.1kHz streaming on Qobuz). 2021. Dan Auerbach, prod.; Richard Dodd, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Shannon and the Clams celebrate the 1950s and '60s with New Wave and synth-pop colors of the '80s. Their terrific musicianship, led by Shannon Shaw's penetrating voice, make this Oakland band a valuable living archive of the best aspects of rock history.

When life took a stressful turn, Shaw called on the eight-armed Hindu goddess, Durga, which helped her face a lifelong fear of spiders and inspired songs dealing in extreme emotions through retro sensibilities and 21st century angst.

The album's detailed production channels a wide range of recorded genres from girl-group-R&B-turned-sinister on "Crawl" to the snide, Tex-Mex flavor of "Leaves Fall Again." Two masters were called in to handle sound: producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and engineer Richard Dodd, a Grammy winner for his work with Tom Petty. The band's guitarist, Cody Blanchard, mixed the album with precision. A sonic highlight is "In the Hills, In the Pines," blending acoustic strumming, old-school electronic keyboard sounds, and digital textural effects. Blanchard's guitar contributes important rhythmic elements and estimable solo work. Will Sprott's Wurlitzer piano captures humor and anger, while his Rhodes piano offers a gentler touch. Drummer Nate Mahan demonstrates stylistic control on soul numbers like "I Need You Bad."

Yet, for all the panache of the instrumental arrangements, it's the vocals that make this band great. Shaw is both team player and star, on one track—"Mary Don't Go"—evoking the emotional power of Janis Joplin. The vocal harmonies on "Flowers Will Return" seem as organic as the Everly Brothers or Queen.—Anne E. Johnson


Various Artists: It's a Good, Good Feeling: The Latin Soul of Fania Records (The Singles)
Craft/Fania CR00277 (4 CDs). 1967–1975. Joe McEwen/Dean Rudland, prods.; Paul Blakemore, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ***

New York City post-WWII was a stewpot of Latin and Caribbean influences fusing with African-American neighbors in crowded Harlem and Bronx neighborhoods rippling out into the mainstream. An early flashpoint was the meeting of Cuban rhythms and bebop. Then came the "Mambo Kings," popularizing Latin jazz and cha-cha's in ballrooms and Catskills resorts. In the early 1960s, Brazilian music met cool jazz, and hits resulted.

One of the Mambo Kings was Johnny Pacheco. Seeking a better deal in the record business, he struck out with his lawyer, Jerry Musucci, and formed Fania Records in 1964. Fania went on to sign the galaxy of stars who invented the still-popular salsa style of music. But the label's roots are in something more hybrid, a unique style of Latin soul with crossover appeal.

In 87 cuts over four CDs (there's also a 2-LP, 28-tune version), the Concord Group collects the Fania singles that fit this Latin soul genre. The music fuses Caribbean and African rhythms, percussion instruments with soul/funk basslines and beats. Most of the singing is in English. The target market was mainstream soul consumers of the late '60s and early '70s.

Fania's most productive soul artists were bandleader/singer Joe Bataan and falsetto crooner Ralfi Pagan. Together, they account for almost half the box's tracks. There are some great songs, especially Pagan's dramatic ballads and Bataan's mashups of boogaloo and funk. There are duds, too: This set would have received 5 stars for content if it had been judiciously pared to three discs. Those wishing a shallower dive may prefer the two-LP version.

Bataan fused his doo-wop with boogaloo beats and had an early Fania hit with "Gypsy Woman." Another hit, released on two sides of a single, was "It's a Good Feeling (Riot)," from which the box set takes its title. He continued a steady flow of singles through the mid-'70s. A highlight is "My Opera," which spotlights Bataan's evolution to soul balladeer.

Pagan had the label's most successful crossover hit (released nationwide on Scepter Records), a funked-up cover of Bread's "Make It With You." On a sad note, the booklet (well-written by coproducer Rudland) details Pagan's demise after leaving Fania in 1975: "He is rumored to have been murdered in Colombia at the end of [the '70s] following a dispute with a promoter. He was never seen again."

Aside from Pagan and Bataan, Fania's biggest soul star, and probably its best musician, was percussionist/bandleader Ray Barretto. Jazz fans will recognize the name; he played on numerous well-loved Prestige and Blue Note albums. A pioneer in the boogaloo style, Barretto hit with "El Watusi" before signing with Fania in 1967. Rather than coast on the boogaloo wave, he made a revolutionary album, Acid. Barretto defined Latin soul by focusing Latin percussion (drums, congos, timbales), two trumpets, piano, bass, and vocal on music that ranged from pure funk to a backbeat-heavy boogaloo. Three singles from Acid are included here; seek out the album for much more of the same. In all, Barretto has eight cuts in the set, including the genre-defining "New York Soul" from 1969.

Harvey Averne produced many Fania soul sides and also headlined a few. Also featured are the Fania All-Stars, a fluid ensemble of the label's main artists better known for pioneering salsa hits and concerts. Proven here, the All-Stars were capable funky soulsters. A stand-out early hit is "Geronimo" by trumpeter/bandleader Bobby Valentin; his "Bad Breath" is a fun romp.

These are vintage, small-label singles designed for AM radio and jukeboxes. As the producers note, some original sources are gone, and some tracks sound like needle-drops of well-worn 45s. But many cuts sound fine, and Fania recorded most of them in stereo, with strong separation of instruments and vocals front and center. Mastering engineer Paul Blakemore did well with the available material.—Tom Fine