4AD 0070 LDX
Format: 2 CDs
Singer-songwriter Gene Clark’s career was filled with the kinds of bad decisions, personal problems, and bad timing that lead to cult status for someone who should have been a star. As a founding member of the Byrds, Clark wrote or cowrote some of their most popular songs, including “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “Eight Miles High.” He left the Byrds in 1966, after three albums, and over the next few years released two solo albums, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers (1967) and White Light (1971), that were early examples of country rock and Americana.
Between those two albums, Clark teamed up with banjo player Doug Dillard. As Dillard & Clark they released two LPs, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1968) and Through the Morning, Through the Night (1969). When the original Byrds lineup reunited for Byrds (1973), Clark’s songs and performances got good notices on an album that was otherwise badly received. Byrds was released on Asylum Records, and the label’s president, David Geffen, offered Clark a chance to do a solo album. Clark began work on the album that would become No Other in spring 1974, with producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye.
4AD has reissued No Other in several variations. A lavish, limited-edition boxed set includes the eight tracks of the original album on vinyl, along with high-resolution and 5.1-channel remixes and other material on three SACDs and one BD. A two-disc CD edition includes a second disc of alternate takes; there are also single-disc CD and LP editions. I picked up the two-CD set.
Clark spent nearly a year writing the songs for No Other, and they were unlike anything he or anyone else was doing at the time. The mysticism of the lyrics came from his Christian background and his interest in other strains of spirituality. The album’s sound and grand sweep resulted from Clark and Kaye’s desire to create something rich and complex -- more in the direction of Brian Wilson than Clark’s labelmates the Eagles. While White Light had been spare and straightforward, No Other was built up of layers of sound that reveal new delights with each play.
At first, “Life’s Greatest Fool,” which begins No Other, doesn’t sound terribly different from the kind of SoCal rock that was then Asylum’s specialty, but as it picks up steam it becomes more intense and ornate. The backing vocals, by a five-member chorus that included veteran session singers Claudia Lennear and Clydie King, give the song a gospel flavor, and Michael Utley’s lively honky-tonk piano provides a country-rock groove. Guitarists Jerry McGee, Jesse Ed Davis, and Steve Bruton create an intricate harmonic texture -- Davis’s solo reminds us what a great player he was. An alternate take on disc 2 is perfectly enjoyable, but the version originally released is more involving as it unfolds.
“Silver Raven” also benefits from a strong arrangement, but with the title track the album begins to move into the unexpected. Utley’s electric piano and Leland Sklar’s bass create an ominous beginning reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s mid-1970s recordings. Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks provides precise, understated drum lines that interact with Joe Lala’s percussion to create a flowing rhythm. Clark’s voice sounds otherworldly; it and the instruments, aided by a sumptuous vocal chorus, weave a narrative of wonder and dread at life’s unknowns.
The meanings of these songs are conveyed more through Clark’s singing than his words, which are sometimes intricate and indirect. On this album, Clark came as close as has any other singer or songwriter to creating something like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. As does that album, No Other evokes its meanings through the emotional qualities of Clark’s singing and the sympathetic playing of the accompanying musicians. The epic, eight-minute “Some Misunderstanding” maintains a country-rock atmosphere, but expands and grows into something indescribable that both underlines and goes beyond Clark’s words:
Maybe someone knows what fate is
Maybe someone knows just why
All I know it’s all related
Maybe someone can explain time
Disc 2 comprises alternate versions of these songs, often in far simpler arrangements. While many of these performances are as enjoyable and as well-thought-out as the versions on the original album, the opulent, densely packed original gains meaning and sound with each hearing.
I didn’t have a copy of the album on vinyl for comparison, but the remastering on disc 1, done by Alex Wharton at Abbey Road Studios, is very good. Instruments and voices register clearly even in the busiest passages, and the music’s subtlety and intensity are conveyed with precision. The discs and a booklet with liner notes, musician biographies, and information about the songs are beautifully packaged in a hardcover Digibook.
Stylistically, No Other was and is a hard album to pin down. Asylum didn’t know what to make of it and so did little to promote it on its original release; it got poor reviews and faded quickly from view. But No Other has grown in stature in the 45 years since -- in 2013, such bands as Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Beach House, and others performed in concert the original album in its entirety. The first time I heard it, I was puzzled by its eccentricity and thought it a little overdone. But after a few return visits, I was beguiled. At some point I’ll buy 4AD’s LP edition; for now, this very good CD reissue will more than do.
. . . Joseph Taylor