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Album review: Gene Clark, 'Here Tonight: The White Light Demos'

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Gene Clark

Here Tonight: The White Light Demos

Few pop artists saw a career of greater promise meet such merciless commercial disappointment as Gene Clark. After becoming what many still consider the definitive songwriting voice of The Byrds, he set course on a solo career that never took flight. The music that followed, including collaborations with banjo legend Doug Dillard, was often extraordinary. But Clark, who died in 1991, never came close to matching the glories of his heyday with The Byrds.

Among the lost treasures of Clark's post-Byrds work was his first proper solo album, a 1971 record released domestically as Gene Clark. Overseas, it bore the title White Light. A mix of folkish reflection and country contentment, it remains the most artfully reserved and satisfying record Clark made outside The Byrds. Aside from a few pockets of devout fans, no one paid much attention to it.

In what has to be one of pop music's most unanticipated postscripts, we now have the newly released Here Tonight, a collection of 12 beautifully recorded — and preserved — demo recordings Clark cut in preparation for White Light. As stirring as Clark's overlooked masterpiece was, Here Tonight just might go down as the better work.

This demo collection is exactly that — a calm set of solo acoustic blueprints with Clark accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica. The song selection doesn't replicate White Light entirely. Opening Day and Winter In, for instance, are rarities that are very much in keeping with the album's warm, reserved attitude. But they surfaced, in fully produced form, on a 2002 reissue of White Light. Likewise, Here Tonight's title tune was reshaped into a bit of cosmic country fun by The Flying Burrito Brothers on a 1973 anthology. Similarly, three tunes from the finished White Light aren't among the "newly discovered" demos on this new release.

But Here Tonight is a gorgeous foreshadowing of the neo-country folk fashioned by guitarist/producer Jesse Ed Davis on White Light. The emotional cast of these demos is almost serene. Intentionally unassuming in construction (as they were never intended for release in this form), these recordings are a total about-face from The Byrds' jangly pop or even the progressive country/bluegrass summits with Dillard.

While there are strong references in style and wordplay to vintage Bob Dylan in Please Mr. Freud and Jimmy Christ, neither of which made it onto White Light, songs like Because of You and the exquisite With Tomorrow rank as sterling examples of Clark's singing.

Like all of Here Tonight, the songs are more than mere postcards from a forgotten corner of Americana past. They form what might be the greatest musical adventure in the career of a grounded Byrd. What a remarkable discovery for any generation.

Walter Tunis, Contributing music writer