Doug Gillard

Salamander

(Pink Frost / Big Takeover Records; 2004)

By Bryan Rowsell | 19 November 2007

I would argue---and this is probably a common sentiment among the citizens of the independent state of GbV-land---that Doug Gillard is somewhat of a genius. Introduced to us in 1997, when his then-band Cobra Verde backed up Rev. Pollard (on that year's Mag Earwhig!), Gillard was not only also Doug CV's lead guitarist, but he is also a founding member of the indie-legends Death of Samantha. In addition, Gillard was the primary singer/songwriter in the supergroup of sorts, Gem.

Quite a resume for someone who's talents are not often heard. Prior to 2004, Mr. Gillard had released a quaint EP, Malamute Jute; and although that was a pleasent-enough offering, one couldn't help that he had more to offer or that he was holding back. Gem's albums were terrific, having the punch and creativity that most side projects dream of. His collaborations with Robert Pollard (1999's Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department and 2003's Mist King Urth under the Lifeguards moniker) are among the fan-favourites of the Fading Captain Series. So why has he waited until now to release his rookie solo effort, Salamander?

The obvious answer to that question would be his impending presence on the unemployment line due to Mr. Pollard's disbandment of Guided by Voices. This isn't the case, however, as most if not all the recording for Salamander was done long before Pollard announced his decision. So, Doug. . . why now?

It would seem that guitarists from revered bands have a tendency to be the first to release solo recordings. George Harrison was the first Beatle to step out on his own with the brilliant All Things Must Pass, and James Iha from the Smashing Pumpkins released 1998's underrated effort Let It Come Down. Both of the aforementioned projects were non-linear deviations from their work in their respective bands, and as such their solo albums possessed a sence of necessity to them that many similar projects don't.

Since Robert Pollard is making fans wait salaciously for his double-album American Superdream Wow, Salamander is the first "post-GbV" release (hard to call it post, since their Electrifying Conclusion Tour is still underway) by any of the current members. As such, it is sure to get overly scrutinized by the GbV-supporting music press. Salamander lives up to these expectations, though it rarely exceeds them; the overall sound of the album lies closer to Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department than anything else in the Gillard canon, and much like that LP, Gillard takes on the role of multi-instrumentalist. Once again, he pulls it off remarkably well, with Superchunk alum Jon Wurster lending his skins on three of the album's forteen tracks.

Normally, what would follow is a song-by-song account of Salamander, telling the reader what your humble reviewer counts as high and low points. It is a near impossiblity to perform this task for Salamander, as one can't help but notice how all the songs have a palpable sense of familiarity, even though none of the songs have seen the light of day.

Fans looking for "I Am a Tree" are going to be sadly disappointed. Instead, Gillard opts for a '70s AM-radio pop feel, sounding more like equal parts Beatles, Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Much like his previous Pollard-penned work, he opts for arrangements dominated by the acoustic guitar. Perhaps this is a concerted effort to distance these songs from his work with GbV and Gem, but influences from those bands are clear in many of the record's tracks. "Me And The Wind" and "Give Me Something" sound like they were ripped right off of Gem's 2001's Sunglare Serenades; meanwhile, "Blockout" and the GbV-shortness of "Drip Nose Boy" are clearly inspired by Gillard's time as Pollard's left-hand man, with catchy riffs and some of the lyrical ambiguity perfected by the man himself.

Although Salamander isn't a perfect album (beautifully crafted pop-rock songs like "Valpolicella," "Going Back (To You)," "Landmarks (In My Mind)" and "The Cape and Bay" are scattered almost evenly throughout Salamander), it proves that Gillard has a musical life after Guided By Voices. His past efforts always hinted at this, but Salamander is the first project that Gillard possesses Pollard-like control over the material. It represents a marketable growth in Gillard as both a musician and a songwriter, and I for one look forward to hearing more from this artist once GbV takes its final bow about six weeks from now.