Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Album Retrospective: Guadalcanal Diary

Oh hey, another one of these things.  I was originally just going to review one of their albums, but I figured they only have four so I might as well do a retrospective on 'em.

Guadalcanal Diary are an 80s jangle pop band from Georgia.  The best way to describe their sound would probably be: Take REM; turn up the rockabilly influences, add punky quirkiness, add some African rhythm influence, and slap Michael Stipe until he stops singing like he's been lobotomized.  So yeah, they sound like REM (though they formed the same year, so you can't really call them clones).  I actually like Guadalcanal Diary more though, as I've always found REM a bit boring. Guadalcanal Diary have more energy and a rather quirky range of subjects, from spiritual contemplations to references to the Three Stooges.

-Murray Attaway: Vocals, guitar
-Jeff Walls: Guitar
-Rhett Crowe: Bass
-John Poe: Drums

Walking In The Shadow of The Big Man
Walking In The Shadow of The Big Man (which I will henceforth shorten to Big Man to save time) is Guadalcanal Diary's (good god so many long titles in this sentence) first album and, if you're keeping track, their most REM-ish.  The album opens on a high note with Trail of Tears, a catchy jangly Civil War-themed song with a brisk pace.  Next up is Fire From Heaven, another song in a similar mode but with a bit more punch.  Oh, and it's about spontaneous combustion, so there's that.  The album pretty much continues in this mold throughout, but in the sense of it being a consistent sound as opposed to just being variations of the same song (*cough*U2*cough*).  Special mention goes to the instrumental Gilbert Takes The Wheel, lead by the powerful rhythm section, the more blatantly country-infused Ghost On The Road, and the extremely tongue-in-cheek Watusi Rodeo.  Also the last song is a live version of Kumbaya for some reason.  Overall a good album, assuming you like the sound, and probably their easiest to get into.
Key tracks: Trail of Tears, Gilbert Takes The Wheel, Ghost on The Road, Watusi Rodeo.

This here is my personal favorite Guadalcanal Diary album, but most people seem to think it's a weaker one.  Maybe I'm weird, I dunno.  What's worth mentioning is that this is one of the stranger albums I own, covering a somewhat schizophrenic range of subject matter.  The band continues to display their talent at making excellent openers with Pray For Rain, a powerful and furious song covering dark spiritual matters.  Actually, four of the first five songs of this album (Pray For Rain, Fear of God, and Spirit Train.  The odd one out is Michael Rockefeller about, er, Michael Rockefeller) cover various dark spiritual themes.  It's like a mini-EP stuck onto the beginning of a different album.  Of these, Pray For Rain is excellent, Fear of God is alright, but a bit uninspired, Jamboree is a cool mellower number, Michael Rockefeller is sufficiently mysterious-sounding for the vanished Rockefeller, and Spirit Train is a great yearning song that serves as a good finale to this section of the album.  After Spirit Train things start getting a bit weirder: Lonely Street sounds for all the world to me like a mid-60s George Harrison song, T.R.O.U.B.L.E. is a slow jazz number about sibling rivalry, I See Moe is a short, fast-paced song equating the subject's antisociality to Moe of the Three Stooges, Please Stop Me is an excellent tortured murder ballad that makes you feel for the killer, Dead Eyes is an thundering song about vague nighttime horrors led by Poe's drumming, and Cattle Prod is an arena rock number about bestiality.  Maybe I like novelty, I dunno, but the quirkiness of subjects really appeals to me on this album, and the songs themselves are mostly strong.
Key tracks: Pray For Rain, Spirit Train, Please Stop Me, Dead Eyes.

With a more violent cover comes a more violent sound.  On 2x4, Guadalcanal Diary makes an effort to really make their sound much more muscular, perhaps to distance themselves from REM comparisons.  The general consensus seems to be that this is the band's best album, but I personally disagree.  In the translation from jangle pop band to, well, tougher jangle pop band I feel like some of their unique charm was lost in the translation:  The song's here, although still somewhat spiritual, are much less quirky than on the previous two albums.  There are still a lot of good songs on this album though:  The opener Litany (Life Goes On) is a great, soaring song and probably the most epic the band  got, Get Over It is a fun poppier piece, Things Fall Apart is sufficiently apocalyptic sounding for the title, Let The Big Wheel Roll manages to pull off the swagger pretty well, and Where Angels Fear To Tread sounds like it could've been from their first album.  There's also a cover of And Your Bird Can Sing.  Although it's nice to see this under-appreciated Beatles song get some love, it's missing the awesome riff from the original and thus doesn't really measure up.  So yeah, it's a pretty good album, but I feel like they lost a bit of their identity on it.
Key tracks: Litany (Life Goes On), Get Over It, Things Fall Apart, Let The Big Wheel Roll.

Although I'm of course sad that Guadalcanal Diary only has four albums, they appear to have quit while they were ahead because Flip-flop is by far their worst album.  That's not to say it's bad, exactly, it just feels... bland.  The opener Look Up!, for example, is an entertaining standard jangle pop song with a decent chorus, but there's really not much memorable about it.  The second song, however, is much better.  Always Saturday, with its power pop sound, vaguely disturbing video, and lyrics spoofing suburbia, should've been a bigger hit than it was.  The main problem with this album, I feel, is that the band feel like they're retreading ground.  There's nothing wrong with it, but I rarely feel inspired to listen to it when I could listen to one of the other albums by the band, and even when I do listen to it, I tend to just pick out key tracks.  Special mention, however, does have to go the final song ...Vita, which is not at all ashamed to be very, very silly (taking its nonsense chorus from a campfire song).
Key tracks: Always Saturday, The Likes Of You, Ten Laws,...Vista.

So, overall album rankings: Jamboree > Big Man > 2x4 > Flip-flop.  I'd recommend getting either Big Man or 2x4 before Jamboree though, depending on how muscular you like your alt rock.  

So, that's it.  Definitely a good band to look into if you like alt rock.  You can give their albums a listen on Grooveshark and they're buyable on various internet-centric product-buying depots.  I once saw the records of a couple of their albums at a used record store (didn't have the money to buy them, alas), but I wouldn't count on finding their physical goods offline.

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