Sometimes the roster of contenders on the American underground rock front resembles the crop of Democratic presidential aspirants: precious few of the candidates stand out from the crowd. But Wednesday night at Bogart's in Long Beach, headliner Guadalcanal Diary proved itself a solid front-runner, even as opening act Grapes of Wrath seemed to be stuck in the pack.
The primary strength of Marietta, Ga.'s Guadalcanal Diary is its avoidance of formulas. The quartet's original repertoire, written largely by singer/guitarist Murray Attaway and lead guitarist Jeff Walls, ranges from the transcendent, expansive rock glory of the recent single "Litany (Life Goes On)" to the cornball '50s-ish noir melodrama of "T.R.O.U.B.L.E.," each song incorporating sudden shifts in dynamics that shatter any sense of predictability.
And whether playing for laughs or for tears, Wednesday the band always sounded like it was playing for keeps. The secret weapon: the rock-hard rhythm section of drummer John Poe and bassist Rhett Crowe. How many other bands could pull off convincing serio-comic covers of both Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" and the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" (the latter stuck in the middle of the Diary's signature rocked-up version of the traditional campfire closer "Cumbayah")?
Unfortunately, Vancouver, B.C.'s Grapes of Wrath were all too predictable, though the quartet also made an interesting choice of a cover song: fellow Canadians the Band's "The Weight." But while the group's songs and performances were fine, there's nothing particularly compelling about its variation on post-R. E. M. neo-folk-rock dreaminess that a few years ago was rock's New Deal, but now is just old hat.
Both bands play tonight at the Green Door in Montclair and Saturday at the Roxy.