Gene Clark was a restless character, never staying in one place musically for too long. Handsome and intuitive, with a fine, soulful voice and a prodigious gift for poetry and songwriting, after some brief early successes he seemed singularly incapable of making the most of his profile; one narrative has Clark as the perpetual commercial underachiever, the lost star hiding from the light. With this reissue of No Other, Clark’s finest hour, another, much more important narrative gets reinforced – the visionary not so much ahead of the game as far removed from it, a creative talent inhabiting his own universe, the spirit guide asking questions about the very core of life as we live it. Wisdom hard-won from the highs and lows of the everyday? He knew all about that.
Clark first came to some notice as a member of the New Christy Minstrels, whom he joined in 1963; one year later, he was out of the group and working with Jim McGuinn and David Crosby, pulling together the first lineup of The Byrds. Clark contributed some of their early classics – “Set You Free This Time”, “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”, “Eight Miles High” – but left in 1966, tired of being a pop star, overwhelmed by expectations. 1967 brought an album with the Gosdin Brothers, featuring a clutch of Clark classics; over the next few years, he explored country in the Dillard & Clark duo, and in 1971, released his first solo gem, White Light, its nighttime hues granting songs like “From A Spanish Guitar” and “With Tomorrow” a most mysterious tenor.
That album appeared at a time of change for Clark. He’d married Carlie Lynn McCummings and settled in Mendocino, California. Soon after the LP’s release, he was tapped by Dennis Hopper for some songs for his film The American Dreamer, and he also recorded some still-unearthed demos with Terry Melcher. Clark’s writing was prolific, but a brief reformation with The Byrds in 1972 promised much and delivered little. It was time for Clark to cut loose and make his masterpiece. So, in April 1974, Clark shacked up in The Village Recorder studio in Los Angeles, with producer Tommy Kaye – who’d already made a stir by lavishly overspending on Bob Neuwirth’s debut album – calling in a cast of session musicians to coax musical poetry from some of Clark’s most open-ended, multi-layered writing. Big and bold, the album that resulted was ambitious, expensive and a commercial flop.
It was also deeply felt and visionary, though, and No Other more than withstands the ex-post-facto hype that’s been flung its way. The songs came out of a meditative period – talking about the writing process, Clark told Paul Kendall in 1977, “I would just sit in the living room, which had a huge bay window, and stare at the ocean for hours at a time… In many instances with the No Other album, after a day of meditation looking at something which is a very natural force, I’d come up with something.” Certainly, there’s something oceanic about both the songs and the production here. No Other is wide-eyed, unwieldy at times, awash with gospel backing vocals, swirls of keening strings, a hybrid monster voraciously swallowing genres – no surprise, really, given Clark later said the album was influenced by two similarly catholic sets, the Stones’ Goats Head Soup and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions.
“Life’s Greatest Fool” opens No Other, its lilting gait and countrified melancholy soon cleaved apart by a soaring choir, rising from the song with breathless intent. “Silver Raven” glitters, an incandescent light shimmering through its liquid languor; “No Other” itself is a late-night reverie, a down ’n’ dirty dirge, an epically over-fuzzed bass rutting its way through the song. “Some Misunderstanding” is Clark at his most tender, and accordingly, the song’s verses are open and spacious; in the chorus, this most questing of lyrics is undergirded with rattling organs and swooning gospel singers.
There are moments of gentleness, like the sweet country soul of “The True One”, perhaps the most straightforward number on the set. Throughout, though, No Other plays deceptively, a complexly structured beast that manages to feel loose, funky, vibrant, sometimes swampy, sometimes epic, no more so than on the cosmic dialectics of “Strength Of Strings”, its centrepiece, a stirring hymnal lost in its own reverie, nimble bass plumbing the depths while tremolo slide guitar and clusters of chordal piano corral around one of Clark’s greatest vocal performances. Heavy and hypnotic, it’s no surprise that Ivo Watts-Russell’s This Mortal Coil chose it to cover on 1986’s Filigree & Shadow.
It makes sense, then, that this reissue of No Other is being released by 4AD; in its first, finest blush, across the ’80s, under the guidance of Watts-Russell, the label balanced rococo flourishes with a classicist air informed by the progressive singer-songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s. Helped by Sid Griffin and others, it has unearthed session tapes that yielded two discs’ worth of previously unreleased takes, though to hear everything, you’ll need to drop some serious coin for the deluxe silver boxset, which also features a lavish book, a DVD including a film about the making of No Other, and an exclusive 7in. The album’s been remastered at Abbey Road and there’s a HD 5.1 surround mix, too. If that’s not enough, there are two flexi discs with otherwise unavailable takes if you order the box directly from the label.
It’d be churlish to begrudge the label its enthusiasm – the album’s certainly worth the treatment. And digging into the unreleased material, what you hear proves revelatory in many respects – a lot of these earlier versions, as works in progress, lack the luxuriant arrangements of the finished LP, and the cosmic visionary at the heart of the final product falls away, revealing a gorgeous collection of beautifully played country-rock songs, touched at times by the kinetic energies of the best soul and R&B, placed in service to an unfaltering voice. The players may drift in and out of orbit a little, but Clark sits there through it all, the unflappable centre of attention.
Among the highlights of this material are a few lovely versions of “Train Leaves Here This Morning”, a number from The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark, from way back in 1968 – its ease and breeziness, laid-back and cantering, is a little at odds with the No Other songs, and it makes sense that Clark held it back. The understated third version of “Some Misunderstanding” reveals the simple tale of sadness that is, maybe, a little lost in the expansive warp and weft of the album version. Tracking the development of “Strength Of Strings”, No Other’s epic, is thrilling, from a formative, almost stumbling first version, through the confidence of the second take, and on into the album’s mindboggling feat. Throughout, Griffin and John Wood’s mixing is spot on.
Some will prefer the stripped-back, elemental performances that are compiled on the extra discs, and they are certainly magnificent recordings in their own right. But part of No Other’s magic is its ambition, Clark’s desire to reach for a music well beyond the pop, country and folk rock he’d already pioneered. That vision, enabled by a producer who didn’t really seem quite to know when to reign things in, is matched here by songs that take on the very essence of existence as their métier. It would read as ridiculous if it wasn’t so powerful, but part of the joy of No Other is the way it skirts the improbable, the laughable. Sometimes, throwing it down for all to hear means you’ve got to take some big risks.