Wednesday, 18 April 2012

No Other - Gene Clark - album review

I have always been somewhat wary when approaching albums with a "cult" or mythical reputation, as the substance seldom matches the lavish praise heaped upon them.   The longer one is exposed to the fulsome reviews and general hyperbole, the greater the eventual sense of disappointment and anti-climax will be.

In the case of Gene Clark's 1974 release No Other, I acquired it not long after becoming aware of it, and so no process of "softening up" was involved.  I found that it did largely justify its reputation, and is a noteworthy piece of work for a number of reasons.

The album stands out from the rest of Clark's oeuvre, even considering his quixotic career.  The stems from the juxtaposition of Gene's patented songwriting and performing prowess with some quintessentially "Seventies" production values and soundscapes. Although the production might appear lavish and glossy, it also manages to retain some organic and gritty qualities. Thankfully, the quality and power of the compositions is hardly obscured at all.

Whilst it is very true that No Other is "of its time", it does have a real grandeur and majesty about it, and a certain mythology surrounds it, partly fuelled by the lurid tales emerging from the recording sessions. The LP became emblematic of the bloated hedonism of its era, although it seems that many of the stories surrounding its making were exaggerated or fabricated. The same properties which make No Other unique and captivating are the same ones which have also made it misunderstood, divisive and slightly polarising. Derided by many around the time of its release, it has since been largely rehabilitated.

The instrumentation is unusual when compared to Clark's other work, with more opulent and layered backing tracks on the majority of the tracks.  This prompts the charge that many of the songs are "samey", and almost indistinguishable from each other. It is almost a concept album in that respect.

Having said that the songs border on the homogeneous, the closer "Lady Of The North" is arguably the tour-de-force of the set. From a delicate, largely acoustic, opening, this builds into something of an epic - ethereal, compelling, evocative and hypnotic.

The opener, "Life's Greatest Fool", sets the tone, with some atypical (for Clark) harmonies and even lyrics.  We have already touched on the uniformity of the backing tracks, but some nuance is injected by the variety of musicians employed; a veritable who's who of Los Angeles sessionmen of the time.

"Silver Raven" exemplifies the atmospheric, vaguely unsettling flavour of much of the album, with oblique lyrical content. Here, as on some of the other numbers, Gene's voice sounds less expressive than normal, but also more varied; not a contradiction.

The title track exudes many of the trends of the early to mid 1970s, with its use of electric piano and synthesizers, and the treatment applied to the singer's voice. These things were very much in vogue, and the sound also contains echoes of the likes of Steely Dan and Little Feat, two critically acclaimed acts of the time.

"Strength of Strings" has a very steamy acoustic guitar intro, again very much a 70s trait. The arrangement here is dense and excessive but dramatic, driven largely by piano. This song also contains possibly Clark's most effective vocal on the album, more emphatic and distinctive than the others. The lyric is vaguely mystical, and there is some pleasing guitar work throughout.

The next item "From A Silver Phial", is more country-tinged than the other material, and features a more archetypal Clark melody and lyric, whilst still incorporating some of the hallmarks of this particular album.

Also, helping to steer the album towards more familiar Gene Clark-esque territory is "Some Misunderstanding". This time the vocal is allowed sufficient room to breathe, and the flourishes are less obstrusive than elsewhere. All this makes the song one of the more understated, but also one of the more impressive songs on No Other, artist and producer achieving a kind of happy compromise, even if inadvertently. The guitar and piano parts complement the song rather than verging on the cloying.

"The True One" is less country-rock than authentic country, with its use of pedal steel.  In this esoteric setting, the song sounds quite banal, but it does also serve as light relief, being undemanding in comparison to the statements surrounding it. Well crafted and innocuous.

No Other is an album which defies easy description.  An uneasy listen at times, but it was probably not intended to be cosy and comfortable. It was hightly ambitious, and the flights of fancy do not always come off or succeed, but this is one its virtues. Approach with an open mind, and you will be rewarded and even enchanted....

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