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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Tales of Two Bands: Uninspired and a Minor Delight

With so many bands currently taking their names from earlier entertainment works--running a cultural gamut from the Lucy Show to the Reivers--one has to wonder whether rock bands are beginning to run out of ideas.

That, or the opposite, could be argued from the double bill of previously owned names at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Monday: Guadalcanal Diary and Treat Her Right. (They also bunk down tonight at the Palace in Hollywood.)

Five years and four albums into its professional career, Guadalcanal Diary appeared frozen in its interminable set of cynical, uninspired anthems. Named for the William Bendix-versus-Japan war classic, the Georgia group’s sonic assault seemed aimed more at gradually wearing listeners down than in winning with any decisive qualities.

Where many singers could get by with the limited vocal abilities front man Murray Attaway worked with, there was no getting around his monochromatic emotional input, which rose only to expressing a hip, detached Angst on most songs. Though bassist Rhett Crowe and drummer John Poe hit some tight, if overbusy, grooves, the overall band sound was undefined, generating much more volume than power.

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Many of Attaway and Poe’s songs are clever, but so was Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick,” and it came with a free newspaper. While the strongest melody of the set was arguably Attaway’s smirking cover of Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki,” the Guadalcanals did have some well-crafted songs, particularly those from the current “Flip-Flop” album. But when craft isn’t matched by passion, why bother calling it rock?

The band was at its best on three songs from “Flip-Flop”: “Look Up!,” “The Likes of You"--propelled by a Stones-ish riff--and “Always Saturday.” Unfortunately, Guadalcanal Diary’s best happens to sound an awful lot like R.E.M.'s least. While certainly not a new criticism, the comparison to their fellow Georgians seems to grow more apt with each Guadalcanal album.

Now that R.E.M. has grown to arena status, the ability to catch some B-side-grade Athens-isms in a club might not be such a bad deal-- if the Guadalcanals knew when to stop. The band ran out of ideas long before the 28-song set, which included their tired, ancient, thrash-up of “Kumbayah,” ground to a halt. Treat Her Right, while not yet up to anything worth trading for the “hey, hey, hey!” refrain in Texas shouter Roy Head’s 1965 burner of the same name, was a minor delight for the looming potential in its skewed roots music.

With a musical command ranging from the Chicago blues to the not-unrelated strains of the vintage Beefheart Magic Band, the Boston-based quartet dug a rocking, sinuous groove into each of its 12 songs. Those ranged from the mindless Saturday night crawl of “Rhythm and Blues” to singer-guitarist Mark Sandman’s wry, mock-celebratory comment on the transitory nature of materialism on “Junkyard”: “I got one of every single man-made thing . . . in my junkyard.”

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On stage, the band sounded every bit as potent as it did with John Mellencamp producer Don Gehman helming its current “Tied to the Tracks” album. They made good use of a unique instrumentation of non-stop harmonica, two guitars (one often electrically modified to kick it into the bass register) and a cocktail drum (essentially an all-purpose tom-tom designed for lounge use in the ‘50s), creating a varied batch of beguiling riffs and moods.

Impressive though it was, Treat Her Right still came across as unsettled. The music pulled in three directions: part Tailgators-like roadhouse band, part Beat Farmers-like roots ‘n’ puke band, and part something original just spreading its wings.

While a hot-slide guitarist, co-front man David Champagne doesn’t yet deliver up songs that are equal to the voice and gravity of Sandman’s. And the band at times was overpowered by its influences, sounding more like a Little Walter record than itself (though there are definitely worse fates than that). All are things that the band can work out with time, and the brimming enthusiasm of its performance suggests Treat Her Right might well get there.


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