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Doug Gillard
Salamander
Pink Frost

As of January 1, 2005, Ohio's perpetually soused indie-rock quasi-superstars Guided By Voices ceased to exist as anything other than a lingering hangover. Nearly all the hoopla accorded this event was aimed at the motivations and future plans of GBV main man Robert Pollard, but late in '04 Pollard's longtime first lieutenant, aw-shucks guitar hero Doug Gillard, quietly released his first full-length solo CD.

Turns out Salamander is a great, fun, pop record -- exuberant, hooky, gritty and smart. The high quality shouldn't surprise any inveterate liner-note readers out there, who will remember that Gillard wrote GBV's immortal "I Am a Tree," one of the rare non-Pollard compositions to be allowed into the band's canon. Even so, Salamander sounds not a whit like Gillard's old band. "Valpolicella" is as breezy a love song to a Northern Italian wine as you're likely to stumble upon (slyly recasting the Fab Four's "Penny Lane" with its "in my guts and in my mind" refrain) while "Me & the Wind" (no relation to the 1983 XTC tune of the same name, music geeks) is head-spinning, propulsive power-pop. The lyrics throughout the disc are relatively straightforward, often wryly humorous and sometimes even intellectually stimulating (i.e. "Symbols and Signs" with its Roland Barthes-ish evocation of "fetishistic souvenirs").

The overall sound is energetic and cohesively rocking, an impressive feat considering that Gillard plays nearly all the instruments himself. Solo albums by former second bananas rarely make much of a splash, and with good reason. But regardless of your feelings about Guided By Voices, anyone in the market for catchy, well-played songs that aren't stupid or juvenile (or poetically obscurantist or sonically prog-rockist) would be wise to saddle up this Salamander and take it for a spin or two. -- Scott Faingold

Richard Buckner
Dents and Shells
Merge

The year 2004 was a good one for Buckners. Bill Buckner -- the infamous ball-flubbing Red Sox first baseman --received a pardon when his former team finally won the World Series. And Richard Buckner, one of the most disturbingly depressed performers of the past decade, no longer seems to be phoning in his lyrics to a suicide hotline. Oppressive angst has released its stranglehold on his singing voice, and surging melodies hammer a crack in his wall of darkness like a lightning bolt against a pitch-black sky. Buckner stretches simple words with his drawn-out delivery not to showcase his vocal range but to complement abstract arrangements that sprawl single sentences over several lines. He also substitutes instrumental reflection for vocal choruses, with King Coffey's thunderous drumming taking the place of the primal screams Buckner no longer summons. For every almost-upbeat acoustic hook, there's a quivering drone, a colorless canvas that Buckner splatters with vivid imagery. If anything, Buckner's brighter moments increase the emotional intensity of his sorrowful songs. Potent anguish numbs in large doses, and the unrelenting agony on his earlier albums made it difficult to appreciate his subtle songwriting genius. Dents and Shells lets listeners absorb his fractured folk strumming and vulnerable vocals without punishing them with pain. It bares Buckner's soul without stripping to his raw nerves. -- Andrew Miller

Erasure
Nightbird
Mute

With synth pop making an unexpected comeback, the timing couldn't be better for a new Erasure album. Vince Clarke's infectious recordings with Depeche Mode, Yaz, the Assembly and, of course, Erasure helped create the blueprint for electronic dance pop, while Andy Bell's soulful vocals and flamboyant persona added a critical human element. Unfortunately, on Nightbird, Erasure's first album of original material in five years, the pair exchange the exuberant pop charm of their earlier careers for bland adult-contemporary electronica, with nary a hook or hummable melody in sight. Nightbirdcould almost be saved from the bargain bin by the tricked-out, dance-ready "All This Time Still Falling Out of Love" if not for its regrettable resemblance to the Donna Summer/Barbra Streisand duet "Enough Is Enough." -- Eryc Eyl

The Game
The Documentary
Aftermath/G Unit/Interscope

Dr. Dre has discovered a foolproof method for creating superstars. First he casts an unknown with the right profile -- in this case, Jayceon Taylor, who hails from Compton (the hood with Attitude!), used to deal (dope!) and has been shot five times (hit the charts with a bullet!). Then he introduces him via a disc whose high-profile producers (Timbaland, Hi-Tek) and megawatt guests (Eminem, 50 Cent) make him seem as if he's already famous.

Although the skill of the support staff here can make it difficult to objectively judge the Game's talents -- Jaleel "Urkel" White could rap the Kanye West-produced "Dreams" and it would still work -- he's blessed with a sandpapery, Method Man voice and a flow that underlines his respect for the genre's forefathers. Granted, he name-drops too often; "Higher" mentions seven celebs prior to the couplet "I won't fuck Mariah/Even if she had Ashanti butt-naked in bed." But when he keeps cliches at bay, as he does on "Like Father, Like Son," he nearly justifies the hype.

Patent that formula, Dre. It's money. -- Michael Roberts

Faceplant
Champion
Self-released

After running up a hefty tab at a big-time Nashville studio for their Get Some CD, Houston metallurgists Faceplant spent a fraction of that to lay down the 14 tracks on Champion at a buddy's home studio. It sounds like a million bucks. Some metal bands focus so much on creating the perfect crunchy guitar sound they forget that if the drums and bass aren't tweaked just right, the rest will suck. Producer Steven Stacy gave Charlie Carlisle's kit such visceral presence that when you crank this sucker up, it sounds like he's wailing inside your frontal lobe.

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