From the past: the Byrds' Gene Clark


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The first week of the new year is coming to an end, but I'm still processing the deluge of music that came my way in 2011. Over the past few months certain albums have consistently found their way into my play pile. In September the reissue label Sundazed released three classic albums by Gene Clark, cofounder of the Byrds. Though I already had copies of two of the albums, I'd only listened to them once or twice over the years, something these new reissues forced me to realize was a mistake. It's kind of mind-blowing that Clark, who had previously been a member of folk-pop institution New Christy Minstrels, quit the Byrds in early 1966, only 18 months after they formed, by which time they'd already made three classic albums. Clark was exhausted by the demands of burgeoning pop-rock stardom and retreated, not touching his guitar for months.

Sundazed reissued his superb 1967 solo debut, Gene Clark With the Godsin Brothers, a few years ago, and this latest batch includes The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, a 1968 album cut by a bluegrass-flavored project Clark started with banjo player and guitarist Doug Dillard, echoing the explicit country-rock sound his old band perfected earlier that year on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The duo cut a second album, Through the Morning, Through the Night (it's not among the Sundazed reissues), with musicians who would soon form the Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons. Fantastic Expedition offers a lovely, slightly psychedelic version of Lester Flatt's gospel gem "Git It on Brother (Git It in Line)," and the tune "The Radio Song," which Clark cowrote with guitarist Bernie Leadon, owes as much to Haight-Ashbury as it does to Kentucky. Neither Clark's solo debut nor this album really registered with the public—a curse he would battle for most of his solo career, despite the excellent music he was making.

In 1971 Clark released the introspective White Light, which also attracted critical acclaim and flopped commercially—it's the second of the Sundazed reissues from this fall. Prior to its release Clark had been spending more and more time in seclusion, and that feeling comes across in the gorgeous music. There are flashbacks to Clark's sharp country-rock, like the rollicking title track, and I also detect a strong Bob Dylan influence—the arrangement of "Because of You" reminds me of "Lay Lady Lay," and the spectacular "For a Spanish Guitar" sounds like something that with a more extroverted arrangement could've turned up on Blonde on Blonde. The album also includes a soulful cover of the Band classic "Tears of Rage," cowritten by Dylan and Richard Manuel.

The third reissue is Roadmaster, an album made in fits and starts in 1972 with a cast of country-rock royalty. Only eight tracks were completed, and when it was released in 1973—only in the Netherlands—it was fleshed out by some tracks Clark had recorded with his old Byrds bandmates in 1970 and 1971. It's a beautiful piece of work, with hints of the classic Byrds sound—from the rich harmonies to the ringing Rickenbacker guitars on "One in a Hundred"—as well as a kind of cosmic pop redolent of 70s LA, which you can hear on the title track and the piano-driven ballad "I Really Don't Want to Know." A record label called High Moon has been promising to reissue Clark's 1977 album Two Sides to Every Story for at least six months—it got a glowing advance review in Rolling Stone in July—but who knows when or if it will actually materialize. Clark struggled with drugs and alcohol for much of his career and suffered a fatal heart attack in 1991. Though he never matched the commercial success he had with the Byrds, these three albums prove that his greatest artistic success came after he left that band.

Today's playlist:

Matt Slocum, Portraits (Chandra)
Ingar Zach, M.O.S. (Sofa)
Joana Amendoeira, Sétima Fado (Le Chant du Monde)
Candi Staton, Who's Crying Now? (Honest Jon's)
No More Shapes, Creesus Crisis (Drip Audio)


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