There’s a sugarcoated history of rock n’ roll’s infancy that glosses over the sleaze and debauchery of those early formative years. Perhaps reruns of Happy Days and other remnants of baby boomer nostalgia perpetuate it. Or maybe it’s just that every new musical generation feels compelled to raise the ante on riling up the young’uns, and consequently we have a tendency to forget how those electric pioneers were actually total badasses. Look folks, we hit a dead end with sonic extremes years ago. Do you really think you can conjure up something more unlistenable than Napalm Death’s Scum? One could argue that musical rebellion in the 21st century isn’t about finding new ways to deconstruct the wheel, but is instead about building upon traditions and perverting them to your own ends.
Take Portland, Oregon’s Guantanamo Baywatch—a band that has built their reputation on wrangling up a ribald mishmash of classic surf instrumentation and brash garage rock. On the one hand, you could view this adherence to the rudiments of rock n’ roll as more of an homage than an artistic stride. Yes, the trio owes a hat tip to Dick Dale’s guitar licks and The Sonics’ primitive blown-out strut. But who gives a shit about reference points anyways? Every artist has ‘em. The question is: can you twist your influences into something exciting and new? In the past, Guantanamo Baywatch demonstrated their ability to do so by cranking everything into the red, making those traditional motifs sound far nastier than their forefathers intended. Remember how The Cramps made rockabilly sound dangerous and seedy even after it was several decades old? That’s what Guantanamo Baywatch did with their crosspollination of tremolo-picked leads and basement-band brashness. But with Darling… It’s Too Late the band broke away from their burying-the-needle-on-the-four-track sound and traveled down to Atlanta’s Living Room Recording (Black Lips, The Coathangers, Jacuzzi Boys) to track with Ben Coleman, Justin McKneight, and Ed Rawls.
“Oldies weren’t lo-fi,” says Guantanamo Baywatch guitarist and vocalist Jason Powell, even though people have a hard time distinguishing the crackle and pop of worn-out vinyl or the low bandwidth of AM radio from the actual production mastery of early rock n’ roll. With Darling… It’s Too Late, Guantanamo Baywatch sought to harness and manipulate the sparkling sounds from yesteryear, all while staying true to the tape hiss and rough takes of analog recording. “We really wanted a mixtape compilation sound to the record,” says Powell, and that approach can be heard in both the songwriting and the production. According to Powell, each individual song was approached with all the amps and the EQs on the recording console zeroed out. That meant that every song was recorded with a new template. The title track and lead single, “Too Late”, perfectly captures this new aesthetic. With Burger Records soul singer Curtis Harding contributing backing vocals and rounding out the classic Motown ballad vibe of the track, “Too Late” is an enormous departure from the trashy Mummies-esque ruckus of their earlier recordings. Of course, the band hasn’t completely abandoned the rowdy surf rock of their previous releases—Powell put the finishing touches on the album back at his Jungle Muscles Studio in Portland to keep that rough-hewn feel intact. But even when he and his bandmates Chevelle Wiseman (bass) and Chris Scott (drums) tread on their familiar territory with songs like “Raunch Stomp” or their cover of Eddie & The Showmen’s “Mr. Rebel”, there’s a newfound clarity, punch, and swagger to their sound. Throughout the course of Darling… It’s Too Late the trio continues to fuck with various subgenres, from the dusty Western twang of “Corey Baum’s Theme” to the straight-outta-Sun Studios rocker “Do What You Want.”
Regardless of what micro-niche of Golden Oldies they tackle, Guantanamo Baywatch serve it up with a signature flair for irreverence and audaciousness that makes their sound wholly their own. It’s a respectful nod to the mavericks of the past, but also a swift kick to the nads of tradition. Darling… It’s Too Late comes out May 12, 2015 via Suicide Squeeze Records on CD, digital formats, and 1,000 copies of peaches-and-cream vinyl.