Album Review: Gene Clark’s ‘No Other’

Listening to the enveloping beauty of Gene Clark’s 1974 album “No Other” in a new surround mix at a Thursday night playback at West L.A.’s Village Recorder — in the same small, dimly lit studio where the record was cut 45 years ago — one wound up thinking that the record does not sound 45 years old. And it does not sound like a failure.

The album, which 4AD Records is re-releasing in an array of freshly remastered editions this Friday, was expensively and meticulously crafted as singer-songwriter Clark’s most ambitious and rarefied work. Yet it failed to secure radio play, strong reviews or, ultimately, retail sales, and within two years of its release it had disappeared from the marketplace completely. In that day, few flops were quite so resounding.

It’s a quintessential cult record: one that enjoyed neither commercial success nor critical favor in its day, but found its true reward in the decades following its release. Usually such albums are highly personal affairs, often concerned with personal tumult, spiritual exploration or a quest for transcendence. Other titles of similar vintage in the same vein — obscurities in their era that are recognized today as major achievements — include Big Star’s “Third,” Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” and Dennis Wilson’s “Pacific Ocean Blue.”

Like Wilson of the Beach Boys, Clark saw enormous success before his music moved to the popular margins. A founding member of the Byrds, the Missouri-born musician penned much of the Los Angeles band’s best early material not authored by someone named Dylan: “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” “She Has a Way,” “Here Without You,” “I Knew I’d Want You,” “Set You Free This Time,” “The World Turns All Around Her,” “She Don’t Care About Time.” Before his abrupt 1966 split with the band (largely the product of festering inter-group resentments), he co-wrote their trailblazing single “Eight Miles High.”

Clark brought singular melodic gifts and tremulous, elasticized baritone vocals to a solo career that never caught fire. His maiden voyage, the 1967 single “Echoes,” promised much: A baroque-pop look back at his Sunset Strip heyday garnished with a string-infused arrangement by Leon Russell, it served as the anomalous lead-off to a largely country-folk Columbia LP with the co-billed Gosdin Brothers. At A&M, he cut two effective country-rock sets with Doug Dillard of the neo-bluegrass unit the Dillards and a spare, keenly written self-titled collection (also known as “White Light”). None so much as scraped the charts.

Curiously, it was a decidedly wan 1973 reunion album by the original line-up of the Byrds, released by Asylum Records, which led to Clark’s greatest artistic achievement. His four featured tracks on that dimly received collection prompted the offer of a one-album solo deal from Asylum topper David Geffen.

Then living in the Northern California coastal town of Albion, Clark set about penning a new set of songs he would later describe as spiritual in nature; their expansive form and cryptic lyrics, which often suggested automatic writing, leaped from a profoundly deep creative space he hadn’t truly explored since “Echoes.”

To produce the material, Geffen suggested Thomas Jefferson Kaye, a musician with two solo albums to his credit who had been active since the mid-‘60s, when he was a teenage A&R man and producer at Scepter Records in New York. Kaye had recently produced a star-studded, costly solo debut by Bob Dylan’s longtime aide de camp Bob Neuwirth for Asylum.

The teaming nearly crashed upon inception: At their first meeting, a drunken Clark chewed out his prospective producer. However, in a conversation the following day, Kaye — who proved to have the same enthusiasm for alcohol and drugs as his charge — made peace with the musician, and sessions for the album that became “No Other” proceeded at the Village in the spring of 1974.

Employing a crack core band of top L.A. session musicians that included bassist Leland Sklar, drummer Russ Kunkel, guitarist Jerry McGee and keyboardists Craig Doerge and Mike Utley, Kaye recorded a small brace of new, provocatively opaque songs. After the basic tracks, cut with live vocals, were finished, the producer layered on dense overdubs that featured choir-like accompaniment and guest shots by such talents as guitarists Jesse Ed Davis, Danny Kortchmar and Buzzy Feiten, violinist Richard Greene and, on mandolin, Clark’s old Byrds colleague Chris Hillman.

With songs that clocked in at an average of five-and-a-half minutes, “No Other” sounded vast, sumptuous and dramatic. Largely eschewing the country/folk orientation of Clark’s previous work, the album was an opulent pop opus of immense grandeur whose most potent songs — “Silver Raven,” “No Other,” “Strength of Strings,” “Some Misunderstanding” — resisted easy interpretation. To be sure, it sounded nothing like the musician’s earlier records, or, for that matter, nothing like any records then currently in the bins.

In every imaginable way, it proved to be a catastrophe.

Geffen, who had invested the then-enormous sum of $100,000 in making the record, flew into a rage when he was presented with an album containing a mere eight tracks and no real potential hits on it. The label magnate’s failure to promote its release led to a near-punchout between Clark and Geffen at Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood. Ironically, “No Other” became Clark’s only album to reach the charts: It peaked at a miserable No. 144 and disappeared after five weeks.

In the meantime, Clark’s wife Carlie, appalled by the reckless partying that took place during the family’s stay in L.A. as the record was being made, bolted for Northern California with the couple’s two young children. Unmoved by the album’s penitent song about her, “Lady of the North,” she soon filed for divorce.

Clark’s life and career never really regained their equilibrium after “No Other.” Though he would make two more albums with Kaye (the second of which included “Blue Raven,” a pallid sequel to the standout “No Other” track “Silver Raven”), the pair could not recapture the magic of their stellar first collaboration. In 1991, four years after the release of his final album “So Rebellious a Lover,” a duo effort with Carla Olson of the Textones, Clark died at 46, felled by addiction-related illnesses; Kaye expired from an apparent overdose of painkillers three years later.

Ars longa, vita brevis.” In the years since Clark’s death, “No Other” has acquired an ever-burgeoning legion of admirers. It was unavailable anywhere except the cutout section after 1976, but its reputation received a large boost in 2003 from a Warner Music reissue that included six undubbed alternate takes and a version of the unreleased remake of Dillard and Clark’s “Train Leaves Here This Morning.”

In terms of its present release, the most important “No Other” enthusiast and Gene Clark fan is undoubtedly Ivo Watts-Russell, the co-founder of England’s 4AD. As musical director of This Mortal Coil, the label’s atmospheric act of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, he included a couple of Clark compositions, including the “No Other” number “Strength of Strings,” on the band’s albums. Though Watts-Russell is longer partnered in the company, Clark’s record plainly remains part of 4AD’s DNA, and that status led to the firm’s in-depth, madly indulgent and frankly wonderful reintroduction of the ’74 album in nearly every configuration imaginable.

One is hard-pressed to recall a single-album reissue as over-the-top and as immersive as the limited edition boxed incarnation. Remastered in all its lush glory, “No Other” is presented in its entirety on LP (pressed on silver vinyl), on SACD and, in 5.1, on Blu-ray. Two additional SACDs include 17 undubbed alternates, none of which was heard on the 2003 reissue.

The Blu-ray also includes a 33-minute documentary about the making of the album and the production of the 4AD box, largely excerpted from Paul Kendall’s 2013 feature “The Byrd Who Flew Alone.” An accompanying 80-page hardback book features dozens of previous unseen session photographs, copious ephemera and marginalia. Notes include essays by Byrds authority Johnny Rogan and (drawing directly from his 2005 volume “Mr. Tambourine Man”) Clark biographer John Einarson, plus a précis about the alternates by writer-musician Sid Griffin, who co-produced the unheard takes with John Wood (who was, appropriately enough, the engineer of all three of Nick Drake’s albums). The package also includes a seven-inch single and two flexi-discs.

For the fanatic, there is nothing quite like this sound-bath and its accompanying eye candy. If the full monty is out of reach price-wise for the Clark aficionado, the two-CD hardbound edition, which includes nine of the alternates, is a magnificent alternative, containing generous excerpts (including Rogan’s complete essay, song lyrics and band bios) from the box’s book.

Even if you choose the least expensive option of the basic LP or single CD, you are in for a revelation if you have never heard “No Other.” As its title suggests, it remains a one-of-a-kind listening experience. Clark himself offered an invitation to his music of the spheres on “Strength of Strings”:

Hear the strings
Are bending in harmony
Not so far from breaking
On the cosmic range

Gene Clark
“No Other”
4AD Records

Album Review: Gene Clark's 'No Other'

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