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Singer/songwriter Gene Clark has been lauded as the bridesmaid so many times the narrative has become tiresome. Briefly: despite writing a good portion of the Byrds‘ early hits, Clark was never able to find success as a solo artist, as a combination of his music’s subtlety and his own self-destructive personality kept him from catching the limelight. But dwelling on the past and speculating about what might have been mean less at this point, two decades after his death, than does his work, which has been available only on import the last several years. Thanks to the reissue gurus at Sundazed, we finally get domestic versions of Clark’s early albums, and they provide a clear argument that Clark should be as venerated as any better-known name of his generation.
Originally released in 1971, White Light is Clark’s second solo record, following the Byrdsian country rock of With the Gosdin Brothers from 1967. Eschewing the harmony vocals in which he trucked for most of his career up to that point, Clark puts the focus squarely on his grainy voice and the songs themselves. Given the high quality of tunes like “The Virgin,” “1975’ and ‘For a Spanish Guitar,’ that’s understandable – he clearly put a great deal of effort into these songs, and the craftsmanship shows. The ballads shine particularly brightly – “One in a Hundred,’ ‘When My Love Lies Asleep’ and ‘With Tomorrow” dominate without dragging the LP down in a mush of crawling tempos. In this context, the cover of Bob Dylan‘s “Tears of Rage” sounds like it comes from a peer, not a classic songwriter. With help from producer/guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, Clark arranges each song for maximum efficiency in lyrics and vocal melodies – everything else is in support. A low-key but insistent charmer, White Light proves that Clark’s artistic reputation is well deserved.
The album didn’t exactly set the world on fire, and it was another two years (nothing now, but an eternity in the early 70s) before Clark followed it up. Released in 1973, Roadmaster was recorded piecemeal over three years with old friends and colleagues in the burgeoning country rock community, including current and previous members of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Indeed, the opening songs “She’s the Kind of Girl” and “One in a Hundred” are full-fledged reunions of the original Byrds lineup, while “Here Tonight” is performed with the Burritos – and sparkling tracks they are, too. Other highlights include the jangling “Full Circle Song,” the Band-like “Shooting Star” and a leisurely, quietly soulful remake of his Byrds track “She Don’t Care About Time.” Unfortunately, Clark tips the balance a little too far into ballad territory this time out, and the sluggish tempos of the nostalgia-ridden “In the Misty Morning” and “I Remember the Railroad” and C&W covers “Rough and Rocky” and “I Really Don’t Want to Know” cause the LP’s midsection to drag. The R&B flavoring of the faintly ridiculous title track doesn’t break up the monotony with much grace, either. But the best songs on the album are good enough to make Roadmaster well worth your time.
In between his record with the Gosdin Brothers and White Light, Clark formed a brief partnership with Dillards banjoist Doug Dillard. The duo’s 1968 debut The Fantastic Voyage of Dillard & Clark has long enjoyed a reputation as a pioneering country rock record, as influential (if not as popular) as the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Over forty years on, the LP sounds awfully modest for a trailblazer, but that doesn’t mean it’s without virtues. Actually boasting more of a bluegrass flavor than a C&W taste – unsurprising, given Dillard’s background and the participation of mandolinist Don Beck and future Eagle/Burrito Bernie Leadon – songs like “With Care From Someone,” “In the Plan” and “Train Leaves Here This Morning” (which would reappear in the Eagles‘ repertoire) mix prominent banjo and familiar post-Byrds vocal harmonies to excellent effect. (Leadon’s writing and instrumental contributions are thick enough to make one wonder why the record wasn’t credited to Dillard, Leadon & Clark.) The lovely closer “Something’s Wrong,” meanwhile, breaks from the bluegrass mold for a less genre-specific showcase of Clark’s measured singing. In spite of the era, there are no psychedelic after-effects here, none of the experimentation that marked efforts by the Burritos or the Byrds – just straightforward songsmithery and acoustic performances that place late 60s music culture in the folk tradition as firmly as “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Rock historians can argue about the significance of Fantastic Expedition in relation to the history of country rock; regardless, the album sounds cool and refreshing, especially when placed within the context of its era.
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