"if you sell your soul
It may or may not be somewhat unfashionable to admit it now, but in the early and mid 1980s the 4AD label was considered to score considerably in the hipster stakes. It was for certain a product of the times, with it’s lush design and corporate identity, and it was for certain home to several artists inhabiting the artier end of rock. This was of course a stumbling block for any self respecting indie-purist, but as an Arts or in particular Design student at the time, it was hard to find anything else that spoke with a voice as sure and studied. Of course the 4AD style was quickly consumed and affected by a host of pretenders, but none had the dedication to the Victorian gothic crossed with decadent Berlin atmosphere conjured by either The Bad Seeds or the Cocteau Twins early performances, nor later the barbaric Boston yawp of Black Francis and his Pixies or Throwing Muses unsettling forays into the subconscious. Nor could they convincingly duplicate the 23Envelope design aesthetic, although this became a moot point when the pairing of Vaughan Oliver and Nigel Greierson parted company.
The 4AD in-house band was the ad-hoc This Mortal Coil, who would record with a variety of vocalists and musicians, performing a few original compositions, but mostly showcasing a host of obscure, forgotten ‘classics’ For a newcomer to the rock canon it was great education and through This Mortal Coil records I discovered Tim Buckley, Alex Chilton and, most importantly, Gene Clark. On Filigree and Shadow, Cindytalk’s Dominic Appleton sings Clark’s ‘Strength Of Strings’, whilst the Rutkowski sisters soar as the backing choir. It is a great rendition of a great song, and is the one that made me seek out the LP that the song came from. That LP was the 1974 solo effort, No Other.
In his recent article in The Guardian, David Bennun reveals that it cost £100,000 to record No Other, which was, as he adds, a considerable sum in 1974. He also tells the story of what could only be very kindly called Clark’s ‘career’ in the music business, from his early days as vital linchpin with The Byrds, through collaborations with Doug Dillard (the excellent Fantastic Expedition of… is glorious, containing as it does one of his best songs, the pleading ‘Why Not Your Baby’) and onto the final recording sessions with Carla Olsen. Despite critical support, however, commercial success resolutely refused to follow, and as a result there was the seeming constant of alcohol and substance abuse; saddly typically rock and roll behaviour.
But out of it all came great songs, and great records, with none greater that No Other. A sublime mixture of psychedelic rock, country, folk and soul, No Other is progressive and homely all at once, assuming your home is one where eagles fly. It’s also an affirmative record, one which catches Clark on one of his all too infrequent peaks of mood and one which, after the poor commercial response, was followed by yet another of his desperate troughs of self-abuse. Although these historical facts make No Other a record loaded with brutal ironies, it’s nevertheless easy to listen to and experience the record without this baggage, to revel in the soaring passions and bittersweet symphonies. Highlights? All eight tracks are strong, but three stand out for me: The title track, which is all southern riffs and grooves densely packed, with compressed vocals inside the mix, and a feel that was later revisited by Emily on another forgotten classic, Rub Al Khali. ‘Strength Of Strings’ which follows is cosmic country folk, a sound that goes well with the roughly contemporaneous recordings produced by Chris Bell and later released as I Am The Cosmos, and with this shared slanted spirituality it’s easy to see why both Clark and Bell’s songs were chosen for recording by This Mortal Coil. Best of all though is ‘Some Misunderstanding’. An epic in the true sense of the word, building from simple strummed guitar and organ through to string and voice swathed majesty, ‘Some Misunderstanding’ is the kind of massive song that today’s journalists would like us to believe that The Verve have made. Thankfully, they would be wrong, for what sets a song like ‘Some Misunderstanding’ and an album like No Other apart is the mixture of Clark’s other-worldly arrangements and his roots in earthy folk and country music, a collision which gels magnificently and whose apparent contradictions make for a never less than compelling experience.
No Other is available on Edsel records, through Demon, UK. A Gene Clark compilation, Flying High is released later this year on A&M.