Gene Clark, “No Other” (4AD Records)
The late L.A. songwriter Gene Clark cofounded the Byrds and wrote some of their most enduring songs, including “Eight Miles High” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” He never became a household name like some of his compadres, but as this loving, expansive new reissue of Clark’s 1974 country-rock album attests, he was a master songwriter who at the peak of his powers created what’s now considered a classic of the genre.
Issued both digitally and in multiple formats, including a deluxe box set featuring a bounty of unreleased takes, the new version has been remastered from the original tapes, and the results are spectacular.
Clark, who migrated to L.A. from rural Missouri in the early 1960s, wrote “No Other” after concluding a brief 1972 stint with a reunited Byrds. With advance money from David Geffen’s Asylum Records, Clark and his then-wife moved to Northern California. On a ranch overlooking the Pacific, he spent a meditative year looking out at the sea and writing the songs that became “No Other.”
According to the liner notes that come with the box set, when he returned, Clark and his producer, Thomas Jefferson Kaye, spent $100,000 ($500,000 if adjusted for inflation) of Geffen’s money recording at the Village Studios in West Los Angeles. Inspired by Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions,” they brought on expert session players including drummers Russ Kunkel and Butch Trucks, guitarists Jerry McGee and Danny Kortchmar and a gospel choir’s worth of backing vocalists including Clydie King and the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit.
Clark rightly considered it his masterwork, and decades later, this reissue has reaffirmed his belief. A seamless blend of American music — twangy guitars, a rhythm section that taps out dynamic funk and soul patterns, an understated mix of piano, synth and keyboards and lots of backing singers — it connects genres and movements with ease.
None of that mattered when the record came out. Asylum didn’t promote it, critics were so-so and the album flopped, peaking at No. 86 on Billboard’s album chart. Clark was devastated. According to the liner notes, Clark and Geffen nearly brawled one night at Dan Tana’s when they unexpectedly ran into each other. (Geffen has denied that this incident occurred.)
When it was first reviewed by The Times, writer David Rensin called “No Other” musically “heavy handed” but suggested that Clark’s ambition “indicates a refusal to be trapped by past idioms.” That refusal is perhaps one reason why “No Other” has endured. In 2013, members of indie bands including Beach House, Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear performed a series of concerts in which they covered the album in its entirety.
At times, “No Other” feels like the first desert rock record, especially the title track, which rolls with Queens of the Stone Age-style bent-note momentum and enough rhythm to overpower a Venice Beach drum circle. Percussionist Joe Lala’s cowbell alone, an extended series of rat-a-tat eighth notes that keeps Rolex-worthy time for way longer than seems humanly possible, is something to behold. The raw “Strength of Strings” forges forth with electrified Neil Young-ian chord progressions.
Teeming with minor-chord melancholy, Clark wonders about winning and losing, rising tides and time’s passing, “notes that roll on winds with swirling wings” and seasons that “roll under the sun, passing the shadows of our dreams.” The kind of dimly lighted record that rewards closed-curtained, open-eared attention, “No Other” lives up to its title.