Album Review: Guadalcanal Diary, ‘At Your Birthday Party’

In a perfect world, Guadalcanal Diary would be a household name, right up there with R.E.M. as one of the first bands people think of when they remember the halcyon days of college radio. We would still be talking about the twisted literary lyrics of Murray Attaway, the whimsically driving rhythm section of Rhett Crowe and John Poe, the essential American twang of Jeff Walls’s guitar. Our children would roam the halls of day care centers singing the beautiful nonsense of “Vista” while we waited to explain the true meaning of “Cattle Prod” to them until they were older. They would be revered, idolized, spoken about in hushed terms. Perhaps in their home base of Athens, GA, these things happen. With the first worldwide release of their 1999 live album, At Your Birthday Party, the time is right to bring Guadalcanal Diary back into the conversation about relevant and influential music.

Guadalcanal Diary seemed to appear out of nowhere, like a mysterious double rainbow, then faded from our sight, a faint, beautiful thing, leaving behind only four studio albums. In retrospect, perhaps those studio albums were the problem. They never quite captured the kinetic energy of those songs, everything compressed from hell to breakfast. It was the Eighties, and everything had to sound like Phil Collins, right? Even as I was listening to their second album, Jamboree, at full tilt boogie in my in-dash cassette deck with the windows down and my hormones raging back in 1986, I could tell something was missing. It was restrained, music heard from another room, performances seemingly held back by a baby gate.

Thankfully, At Your Birthday Party showcases the full raucousness of Guadalcanal Diary, giving their music a swift kick in the production. This may be the most menacing party album ever recorded.

From their biggest hit, “Litany (Life Goes On),” to the slinking backwoods threat of “Dead Eyes,” the band tears through a setlist of fan favorites. With plenty of cheering and whooping from the crowd left in the music, the album sounds like work sweat and dollar draft beers, Marlboro Lights and broken windshields. It is humid. It is exhilarating. The live performance transforms a song like “I See Moe,” a paean to the Three Stooges, from a funny little ditty into a raging rave-up that makes you want to drive over the speed limit and embrace a life full of bad decisions.
It ain’t fancy. Most of the time, it’s not even pretty. This is music composed with open chords and hearts filled with Western ideals, yet weighed down by Southern guilt.

At Your Birthday Party provides the listener with some of the purest hands down straight up rock and roll ever created by man. It’s practically impossible not to have a physical reaction to this album. Tap your foot. Nod your head. Smash a bottle. Start your own band and challenge yourself to do it better than these folks.

If Guadalcanal Diary represents a gap in your musical knowledge, it’s time to fill that in. At Your Birthday Party is the perfect entry point to their catalog. Long time fans may bemoan the lack of their personal favorites, like “Michael Rockefeller,” but perhaps it’s best not to worry about what we didn’t get and be grateful for what we did. Guadalcanal Diary has invited us back to the Watusi Rodeo, and fans of jangle pop and 80s alternative would be foolish to decline.

Complete with updated artwork, new liner notes by Murray Attaway, and full of the kind of piss and vinegar you just don’t hear in music anymore, At Your Birthday Party is a must-have.

At Your Birthday Party by Guadalcanal Diary is available from Omnivore Records wherever fine music is sold.

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