Guantanamo Baywatch is a pretty good all-instrumental surf band with a terrible singer. Chest Crawl, the band’s second album (and first for Dirtnap), puts vocals on all but three of its 11 songs, attempting Cramps-style, reverbed rants, Trashmen-esque shouted call and response, Elvis-y 12/8 balladry and hiccuping rockabilly vamps and sheep-bleating, vibrato’d yelps, all badly off-key and dreadfully recorded.
Without the singing, Guantanamo Baywatch is tight and credible “Barbacoa”’s rampaging snare intro, its syncopated chords, its whomping, thumping bassline builds a sense of headlong rush into Dick Dale-like instrumentals. Later, “Chest Crawl” bristles with staccato tension, its rapid-fire guitar bravado in sync with drums and bass. And “Massage My Taj,” near the end, picks up from a slow, dull beginning to swagger and strut. Though never exactly hi-fi, these tracks are crisp enough to follow. There are sudden stops and abrupt onslaughts, everyone together, everyone in tune.
But something happens when vocals come in. A murk descends, the sharpness recedes, and you can hardly make out the shape of even the shreddiest, most bravado-filled guitar lick. It’s partly because the singing is so awful, but also, possibly, that the band has no idea how to record a singer. “Boomarenga” is clear as clear can be through its neck-spanning, string-burning guitar intro, but dissipates into undifferentiated sludge once the rockabilly chorus starts. The singing isn’t especially legible, and it casts a blurry shroud over everything else.
Add to this the jokey, theatrical tone of many of the songs, not so much a tribute to early rock, rockabilly and surf as a send-up of them. Guantanamo Baywatch is clearly in this for a good time, and who knows, maybe this stuff sounds (and feels) a whole lot better live. On the record, you’re left with the sense of looking at these tunes from the wrong end of a telescope, focusing on the least interesting thing in view, and wondering if it’s for real or just a hoax.