Surf rock and its outcroppings have a rich, if not somewhat surprising, history in the Pacific Northwest. Punk, surf and garage have been flourishing here for decades, birthing everything from The Kingsmen and The Ventures to early albums by Sleater-Kinney. With "Blame Myself," Guantanamo Baywatch pays homage to the tapestry of luminaries, and then promptly sets it right on fire.
Jason Powell's vocals start off sauntering before being pulled tight over a packed house of clattering drums, organ, guitar and bass that pound together to keep a rhythm. It's distinctively nostalgic, leaning on pop song elements laid out by everyone from The Everly Brothers to the Northwest's own piece of garage-rock history, The Wailers. Powell's voice is plaintive and Chevelle Wiseman's bass is as clear as a heartbeat, but Guantanamo Baywatch is not a golden-oldies rip off. Guantanamo Baywatch is a punk band.
Powell's guitar screams and his voice rumbles at the back of his throat, itself a scream barely caged. As soon as they set up a perfect house of cards — a hazy, delicate melody — they knock it down with glee.
These are songs meant to be played live, and that's exactly how the band got started in its hometown of Portland. But after Guantanamo Baywatch's last record, Darling...It's Too Late, the band members found themselves less and less able to play the way they wanted. While their songs have always had a distinctly regional flavor, the more they toured the more they realized even that was shifting.
"Our band got our start for years playing house shows and parties in Portland. If we weren't on tour, we were getting really messy at a house show or punk venue," Wiseman tells NPR. "But with the liquor laws and stricter cops and landlords, that whole scene has changed. It's fun to tour so much and see what different places are into and get tiny peeks into different scenes. We are always surprised, though: When you judge a small town and think you'll have a boring night or the other bands might be whatever because you're in the middle of nowhere — suddenly your mind is being blown by a bunch of teenagers playing in the best surf band you've ever seen, or the gnarliest metal band is opening and you can't even handle it and end up partying with them all night."
Desert Center keeps the band's battered mashup of Northwest influences, but widens its scope. It's a touring record, built for places where Powell can untether his scream, where drummer Chris Scott can demolish instead of maintain. They are songs too big for Portland, though they were nourished by it. And while city centers become increasingly closed off for punk bands, it may be up to bands like Guantanamo Baywatch to find the desert centers for us.