y the time Gene Clark recorded his Asylum debut No Other in late 1973, label-boss David Geffen was banking on hopes that there might be a bit of the old commercial spark left in the mercurial Missourian yet. It wasn’t an unreasonable proposition; though Clark’s solo career had hit something of a thud in terms of sales, the Byrds’ best songwriter was hitting his stride artistically at the dawn of the 70s. He had recorded the magnificent double A-side “She’s the Kind of Girl” and “One In a Hundred” with his former bandmates in 1970, following up the effort with a post-Dylan tour de force, White Light, a year later.
To boot, Clark would be the only one to come out with his dignity in tact on the Byrds’ flaccid reunion album, released by Asylum earlier in 1973. With the other members’ material roundly criticized as the work of lazy superstars saving their best songs for their own records, Clark’s contributions showcased the singer-songwriter’s emerging style: a pensive, melancholy, but melodic country-rock delivered in Clark’s deeply Midwestern yearn of a tenor and graced with a lyrical preoccupation with imagery derived from his interest in Native American symbolism. Geffen’s plans didn’t quite work out the way he’d imagined; No Other would, like the rest of Gene Clark’s records, tank commercially, but not before the songwriter and his producer, Thomas Jefferson Kaye, racked up $100,000 in studio bills recording what turned out to be one of the great lost albums of the decade.
On first listen, though, you’d be forgiven if you thought No Other sounds less like a masterpiece than a “Manassas-terpiece,” laden as it is with mid-tempo country-rockers, CSN-style harmonies sung by the likes of the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit and a roster of heavy session-cats like superbassist Leland Sklar. But just beneath No Other’s country-rock veneer is a one-of-a-kind record: building on the endless, infinite exploration of sound and space of Tim Buckley’s Starsailor and Skip Spence’s Oar.
A mere perusal of the lyrics gives the listener an idea of where Clark was going with No Other; more than any of his records, No Other posits Clark as a Deep Meta-Thinker, which is really saying something for someone who once wrote of “vessels” floating on “wisdom’s karmic ocean.” Witness the record’s gospel-tinged opener, “Life’s Greatest Fool”:
Words can be empty/ Though filled with sound
Stoned numb and/Drifting hard to be profound
Formed out of pleasure/Chiseled by pain
Never the highest/And not the last one to gain
Or “Strength of Strings,” its title a line from Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,” its bridge sung in ghostly a capella:
I am always high
I am always low
There is always change
Hear the strings are bending in harmony
Not so far from the breaking on the cosmic range
Every song on No Other illustrates the metaphysical frame of mind Clark was in during their composition – how he was exploring the meaning and purpose of music itself (a theme that reared its head in his classic and Dylan-admired “Spanish Guitar” three years earlier). And so it’s hardly surprising to learn that No Other was largely composed under the influence of peyote while staying in the coastal home of one of his girlfriends, holed up in a room adorned with a massive picture window high above the Pacific. There, he would sit, tripping and writing for hours on end overlooking the sea as the ocean waves crashed below.
But ironically, the Doug Dilliard-assisted “Lady of the North” excepted, none of the songs he came up with could be considered among Clark’s best in and of themselves, which is probably why the record splits fans to the degree it does. More than any other Gene Clark album, No Other’s songs served as mere sketches. Indeed, what gives the record its singular potency is the marriage of such open-ended, ponderous imagery with music and a production that aspires to the equally cosmic, brilliantly showcased on the epic progressive folk of side closers “Strength of Strings” and “Lady of the North” and the swampy murk of the title track. Here, credit must be given to producer Kaye, who was inspired to create a soundscape for Clark’s quirky, formally-complex songs that was largely grounded in country music (or what was passing for it at the time) but emblazoned with a massive grab bag of gospel choirs, psychedelic guitars, wah-wah violins and honky tonk piano. Such orchestrational touches stretched even the poppier songs here, like the snappy “The True One,” well into the stratosphere.
For years, only three of these songs have been available in the U.S. on the pricey, but worthwhile compilation, Flying High. So while Collectors Choice’s reissue of No Other is historic in and of itself, it is a tad disappointing that they weren’t able to dig up any bonus tracks, especially considering that Clark had intended to release a 13-song double album before he and Kaye ran out of money and thus forcing Geffen to pull the plug on the project. One would think there must have at least been a demo of those songs lying around somewhere.
Alas, going overbudget would be the least of Clark’s problems with Geffen; by the time the pair got around to recording a follow-up, Two Sides To Every Story in 1977, Asylum had dropped Clark from its roster and the ambitious production values of the earlier record would be swallowed by concessions to the smoother adult contemporary market of the day – all of which served to make No Other an entirely unique entry in the Gene Clark catalog. It may be difficult in some ways; indeed, some still think to this day that No Other is Clark’s worst record – overproduced and sluggish. But like the work of brother Buckley, Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue or Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, No Other is a record that no fan of seventies cosmic exploration should do without. It’s true to its title – bold, experimental and utterly one of a kind.
Reviewed by: Matthew Weiner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01