Graded on a Curve:
Doug Gillard,
Parade On

It’s safe to say that Doug Gillard has played in some bands, with the most notable of them being Death of Samantha, Cobra Verde, Gem, Guided by Voices, and Nada Surf. Over the years he’s also released a few records under his own name, and his new one is titled Parade On. Like his two prior solo full-lengths, this latest LP offers pleasurable consistency born from experience, and the album’s succinctness further emphasizes Gillard’s best qualities.

Though he started committing his songs to tape back when he was five freaking years old, with those ditties later documented on the 1990 cassette It’ll Be such a Thrill, the substantive recording career of Doug Gillard begins in the mid-‘80s. Commencing in ’83, the multi-instrumentalist-vocalist-tunesmith was an original member of Death of Samantha, lending them an oft raucous, unfailingly savvy guitar sound as they helped to establish Cleveland’s underground scene as one of enduring importance.

Since then he’s played a key role in a considerable number of rewarding scenarios, more than doubling his credits from the list above, and the near-constant factor in the whole bunch is Gillard’s love of catchy guitar-based settings. Indeed, the projects that bear his name are reliably hook-filled affairs, but they also deliver rock-derived punch.

As evidence, he and Nada Surf drummer Ira Elliot are part of Bambi Kino, an outfit devoted to playing all the covers from the ’60-’63 Hamburg/Cavern period of The Beatles. That reads like a blast no doubt, but please don’t form a notion of Gillard as being a retro-minded artist best suited for the atmospheres of the party.

For instance, Death of Samantha had their collective claws deep in rock history, but they were also extremely intelligent (dare I say intellectual) and very much a band of their era; furthermore Cobra Verde, the act that rose directly from the ashes of DoS, ended up as the instrumental attack on Guided by Voices’ still-nifty ’97 LP Mag Earwhig!

Gillard stuck around Robert Pollard’s campfire for a great deal longer than just one album, contributing his guitar to a series of productive GbV outings. Additionally, he and Pollard collaborated on the project Lifeguards, and in ’99 Gillard actually landed co-billing on Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, a very strong effort that possibly suffers in recognition due to his partner on the disc being so doggedly prolific.

But the association with Pollard does highlight the duo as being two Buckeyes from the same stylistic tree. To elaborate, both reveal a deep engagement with now long-established pop-rock form as they simultaneously manage to imbue their music with the sort of restless smarts that’s present in their inspirations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Gillard’s own work.

Technically, Gillard’s solo debut came with It’ll Be Such a Thrill, though there was also a four-song covers tape released in ’85 featuring Eno, the Beach Boys, “Baby Please Don’t Go,” and Bowie. Roughly around the turn of the century he corralled five tunes for the “Malamute Jute” EP, and then in ’04 appeared Salamander, Gillard’s first solo full-length made as an adult. It’s frequently very good, and ‘09 brought its follow-up, the even better Call from Restricted.

Given the vastness of his background and partially due to his being in such deep cahoots with Pollard, a listener unversed in the material issued under Gillard’s name could be forgiven for making a kneejerk assumption over its contents being basically larkish in nature. However, as Parade On’s opener “Ready for Death” illustrates, exactly the opposite is true.

An immaculately constructed slab of guitar-pop grandeur that combines crisp, brightly recorded jangle and strum with a deftly handled lyrical examination of dark subject matter (the poetry of Dylan Thomas is an unexpected and slyly inverted component), “Ready for Death” grows quickly with repeated listening to stand as one of the best tracks yet from the pen of Doug Gillard.

For starters, there’s the assured range of the vocals to consider, his voice spanning from breathy lilt to impassioned belting with a little bit of deep-throated lingering on the title added in for good measure. And the music, with everything except the drums executed by Gillard, matches (and enhances) this breadth of expression with admirable skill.

While he’s obviously no stranger to rock heaviness, the multi-tasking nature of Parade On’s construction does place the album closer to the pop spectrum; the goal here seems to be the presentation of these songs in their full melodic flower. This is even the case with faster-paced (yet highly-layered) numbers like “Angel X,” though along with the mildly Elvis Costello-esque tone of Gillard’s singing and some faux-string section additives toward the end, there is also a fine guitar solo and hearty bass playing to balance things out.

And speaking of Costello, parts of this record do exude a nicely calibrated late-‘70s post-pub rock/budding pop auteur vibe, which is unsurprising given Gillard’s stated love of Dave Edmunds and Rockpile. But the very attractive “Your Eyes” connects like a cross between The Romantics and prime Squeeze, and “I Shall Not Want” blends dreamy aspects with a sturdy songwriting backbone; in extending to five minutes in length it not only doesn’t wear out its welcome, it also resists easy comparison to precedent.

By contrast, “Upper Hand” is trimly constructed, to these ears casually recalling Wilco’s more pop-forward moments (or maybe Paul Westerberg, though bluntly, Gillard is a better, or maybe I should stress more consistent, writer), while the stretched-out “Overseas” flaunts ample guitar grease and an almost Krautrock sense of rhythmic motion to bring prime Spoon to mind.

Next, “Come out to Show Me” molds a healthy serving of guitar melodicism into an expansive hunk of ground-level studio experimentation and does so without losing the tune’s accessible flavor. From there, the LP kicks out a lean power pop beauty move with “Oh My Little Girl,” a gem that in an earlier era might’ve actually scored Gillard a (non-college) chart hit.

Then comes the punkish ripping of “No Perspective” followed by the swaggering attitude with matching guitar wrangling that comprises “No Regrets.” Both assist in underscoring Gillard’s consistency as a writer, but their qualitative heft is slightly lesser than Parade On’s impressive previous offerings. Ultimately it’s a minor issue, since the title track is amongst the disc’s strongest selections.

“Parade On” begins with a solitary chiming guitar, those strings tapping directly into the mainline of ’66 Beatles/Byrds action before the cut launches forward with a gorgeous batch of full-band tunefulness likely to please many a Cheap Trick fan. It’s an especially fine closer, bookending with “Ready for Death” to solidify Parade On as Gillard’s best solo album.

Another reason would be the record’s relative conciseness. Yes a few of the tracks do sprawl out a bit, but they never falter in doing so, and Parade On’s collected duration really works to its advantage. Perhaps because so many of Gillard’s influences derive from the original LP era, these 11 cuts really reap the benefits of the tried-and-true 40-minute spin, and while the whole lands a tad short of top-tier, any deficits get significant compensation through Gillard’s substantial panache. It becomes clear the guy simply knows good tunes when he hears them, even when they happen to be his own.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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