It's still easier to get played on so-called rock radio if you're a British disco band with a pinup lead singer than if you're a guitar band that's paid its dues in American bars. Nonetheless, new American guitar bands keep popping up. Why do they pursue such an unpromising path? Because they know something the radio programmers don't: The most vital rock 'n' roll in the world right now is coming from the American guitar underground.

BoDeans: 'Outside Looking In'

There's no better argument for the American guitar movement than the BoDeans, the Wisconsin band that released one of last year's best albums, "Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams." Their eagerly awaited follow-up, "Outside Looking In" (Reprise/Slash, 9 25629-1), doesn't grab the listener immediately with melodic hooks the way the debut album did, but repeated listenings reveal a new darkness and maturity to the song writing by Sammy Llanas and Kurt Neumann.

These singer-guitarists form a well-balanced partnership: Llanas' nasal-twang vocals and optimistic country writing complement Neumann's throaty rock voice and realistic blue-collar writing. If the first album (produced by country-folk enthusiast T-Bone Burnett) tilted the emphasis toward Llanas, this new one (produced by the Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison) tilts it back toward Neumann. As a result, the catchy chorus melodies don't jump out, but there's a tougher, thicker rock texture that's closer to the BoDeans' live shows.

This new sound suits the darker tone of the song writing. The happy-go-lucky enthusiasm of the first album has given way to the frustrations of wanting things that stay just out of reach -- an attitude that comes easily to a band that has found critical success but not a hit record. The first single tries to convince a brokenhearted woman not to take it so seriously, because it's "Only Love." But the desperation in Neumann's voice betrays that he feels the woman's frustration much more than his own condolences.

The album's tone is set by the opening cut, "Dreams," a nervous, heavily echoed folk-rock lament that suggests dreams are more for chasing than catching. The most aggressive song finds Neumann playing jittery, angry lead guitar as Llanas recites the familiar cliche's and scoffs, "{That's what they} Say About Love."

What hasn't changed is the inspired craftsmanship of Llanas and Neumann. Every song tells a story, and every chorus boils the tale down to one line hooked up to a glorious melody. Sometimes the singers are both out front in gorgeous Everly Brothers harmonies. More often, one voice is out front with the other joining in with a best friend's affirmation.

The cassette and CD formats contain three extra songs, all of them good, especially Llanas' sheepish confession "I'm in Trouble Again." In any format, this album reaffirms the timeless virtues of emotional singing, melodic song writing and rocking guitars.

Guadalcanal Diary: '2 x 4'

Guadalcanal Diary's third full-length album, "2 x 4" (Elektra, 9 60752-1), finds the Georgia quartet finally raising its performance to the level of its song writing. Murray Attaway and Jeff Walls have always written fascinating songs that try to reconcile their roots in the Bible Belt with their participation in the New South's bohemian rock circuit. On this album, though, the band has the focused rhythmic drive, the disciplined dynamics and the strong vocals to do those songs justice.

It also helps that producer Don Dixon is back at the helm to reinforce the pop tendencies of these underground songs. Attaway sings with a new confidence, and he and Walls have written bolder melodies to take advantage of that. The two guitarists are more likely to play actual riffs than an atmospheric drone. Likewise, the rhythm section plays definite dance patterns rather than all-out attacks.

The songs deserve the best possible treatment, because they are as smart as they are personal. "Where Angels Fear to Tread" is an expansive song about fundamentalist preachers that's more interested in exploring their appeal than in mocking them. In the same way, "3 AM" examines the slide into alcoholism without editorializing.

"Litany (Life Goes On)" and "Winds of Change" are big-rocking hymns that express their faith in the future in secular terms. Undergirding all 12 songs is a sense that spiritual needs are important despite the absurdities of the institutional church -- and that perhaps rock 'n' roll can address those needs for a generation that believes in little else.

The Silos: 'Cuba'

The Silos are a New York-based quintet that brought a pronounced country-folk flavor to their fine debut album last year. Their follow-up, "Cuba" (Record Collect, RC-22), leans more toward American guitar-rock, but the song writing and singing by Walter Salas-Humara has the same melodic lyricism and personal intimacy that he drew from country and folk. This time, though, the band balances the tenderness of his vocals with the tough street attitude of the Velvet Underground; Bob Rupe's guitar and Mary Rowell's viola are strong and melodic enough to function as answering vocals.

Salas-Humara draws on the most mundane of topics -- childhood memories, a friend's wedding, an attractive neighbor, a favorite record -- and makes them seem brand new with his childlike, but never naive, openness and honesty. If Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers played songs from an adult perspective, they might sound like the Silos.