Holiday Gift Guide 2011
Riffs & things
Critics choose stocking stuffers that just keep on givin'
Published: November 23, 2011
Dillard & Clark
Once guitarist-songwriter Gene Clark quit the Byrds in 1966, leaving behind "Eight Miles High," "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" and others (all penned before his 21st birthday), his career was never the same, pop-star wise. Neither were the Byrds, for that matter — the late Clark was their best lyricist and writer.
His great debut solo album, Gene Clark & the Gosdin Brothers (bros who did little more than add backing vocals) showed Clark's love of psyche-era Beatles, Byrdsian pop with hints of country. (The Sundazed 2007 reissue is highly recommended.) The album, released concurrently with the Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday, flopped.
Clark next signed to A&M Records, teamed with banjoist-songwriter friend Doug Dillard for '68's masterful The Fantastic Exhibition of Dillard & Clark. The LP also featured a future Eagle and Flying Burrito, highlighted by "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow's lovely slide guitar, alongside mandolins, dobros and other stringed things that hummed and plucked below Clark, Dillard and Leadon's open-highway harmonies.
The album is a sparkly collection of songs stripped country-bare, intimate — as if the musicians' elbows were touching during recording — but reconstructed on Clark's popish melodies, particularly on the heartbreaking "Out on the Side" and the dusty "Train Leaves Here This Morning," a Bernie Leadon co-write the Eagles covered on their debut. The decidedly un-hip record dropped when California was still dropping acid, and it stiffed accordingly, but dovetailed with Hollywood's rising country rock contingent, had a huge hand in defining that genre. (The second Dillard & Clark album, 1969's Through The Morning, Through The Night added even more bluegrass. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss covered that album's title song and lovely "Polly" on their massive 2007 album Raising Sand.)
Lots of influential records flop, so in autumn 1969, Clark, who was no stranger to booze and drugs, split Hollywood and its soul-corruptive vortexes with his wife-to-be and settled on a dozen ocean-adjacent acres in Northern California. Here he basically wrote White Light, an album of gentle power and absolute beauty.
Produced by sideman guitarist Jesse Ed Davis (Lennon, Harrison, Taj Mahal, Leon Russell, etc.), who, like Clark, had Native American blood in his veins and understood how pop music can sometimes translate to mythic Americana, White Light shows how the songwriter ultimately chose self-expression and solitude over simple ditties. Clark kept to his singsong inner-circle, a folkish-pop model created by Dylan, certainly, but if Dylan had some God on his side, then Clark had emotional verisimilitude on his.
The album is a slow riser, open-aired on acoustic and slide guitars, organ, harmonica, bass and drums, and Clark's plaintive wordplay. Its ghostly beauty is best heard on "The Virgin," "One in a Hundred" and a cover of the Band and Dylan's "Tears of Rage."
Clark could define loss and sticky personal scenarios in appreciable ways; his voice is inescapable as a transmitter of vulnerability, of experience. He incorporated the natural world around him on White Light; melancholic ideas of sea, land and love became places to disappear. "Spanish Guitar" balances a child's innocence against a beggar's life's regret and the song's ache deepens to the final line: "to never be found." Dylan would've been proud to have written it, he even said so.
Roadmaster collects full-band songs recorded in fits and starts with session stars, including Spooner Oldham and the Wrecking Crew, between 1970 and '72. Hard to believe this album won few fans and was all but relegated to a Holland-only release; though a few songs feel underecorded, there's great care in the writing and performances, including the untouchable "She's the Kind of Girl," and a revamped "One in a Hundred," both performed by the temporarily reconstituted Byrds. "Shooting Star" is self-reflection purposely vague in its lyricism, a fitting album closer — this was Clark's last for A&M.
From the original session reels, these remastered CDs sound natural and alive (also on 180g vinyl). Also, it's worth tracking down Clark's 1975 opus No Other and his "cosmic Motown" album Two Sides to Every Story, whose reissue is due soon on High Moon Records. —Brian Smith
1980s iPhone Case
There are a few things we could say about Saved by the Bell's beloved Zack Morris, most of them involving acid-washed jeans, surfable bangs and Kelly Kapowski. But what might endure the test of time is his one contribution to the annals of technology: the brick phone. Too big to slip in your pocket, too bulky for your car's cup holder, 20 years ago, the brick phone — the first consumer mobile phone — was a sign of wealth and prosperity. For $20, you can give your iPhone the retro treatment. The case will indeed protect your phone, while ensuring you never misplace it. —Travis R. Wright
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