Dillard & Clark - "Out On The Side" (The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark)
The back cover of The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (recently reissued with a few bonus tracks on Water Records) has an egregious poem-blurb of the sort that marred the back of many a folk/country LP between the early ’60s and early ’70s. The suspiciously-named Bob Garcia wrote that Doug Dillard and Gene Clark “Nix[ed] Nashville with a vengeance” and found their “roots growing back to the timelessness of Hill music.” Amidst the ghastly clichés, the author describes the scene of the album’s creation: two old friends, a studio in L.A., some beer and a few carton of smokes.
This aptly describes the sound of Dillard & Clark’s short career together. These are definitely “hangin’ out” songs. Despite its reputation as a ground-breaking country-rock record, Fantastic Expedition sounds so relaxed that it’s hard to think of it as revelatory. Clark’s two folk-rock masterpieces - 1967’s Gene Clark With the Gosdin Brothers and 1971’s White Light - succeed in large part because of their cautious, wrought production and deliberate song-craft. In between, he apparently stopped to drink some beers and chill out with his ol’pal Doug, future Eagle Bernie Leadon (who co-wrote six of the album’s songs), former bandmate Chris Hillman, and other Cali faux-billies. That “nixing Nashville” line has a nice ring, but the record seems more a breather from the elaborately arranged country-folk-rock-psych being crafted by Clark and Dillard’s contemporaries than a kiss-off to a place neither had much to do with at any point in their careers.
The album opener, the melancholy Clark stunner “Out on the Side,” fades in midway through an organ note like the listener’s peeping into an open door. Instead of the decisive blast of say, “Like a Rolling Stone,” Clark and Dillard want to ease you in to this kinda-new, mostly-old type of music they’re digging. Thanks to Dillard’s banjo and fiddle, Fantastic Expedition boasts a stronger bluegrass influence than 1968’s other country-rock milestone, the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo; where Clark’s erstwhile bandmates cover Merle Haggard, his new duo play a Lester Flatt stomp-up. The poppier elements reveal themselves subtly. “The Radio Song,” for instance, accents its melody with an electric harpsichord. This blatantly ’60s instrument dates the song but still sounds great, making Dillard & Clark seem less poseurs than innovators doing what made sense at any particular moment. Similarly, the Clark-Leadon song “In the Plan” has too fancy a structure and melody to seem a straight-up roots song. Just as Dillard made raga tempos work on his Banjo Album, his banjo on this song complements Clark’s songwriting just as well as Jim McGuinn’s twelve-string did a few years prior.
Fantastic Expedition and Dillard & Clark’s inferior follow-up, Through the Morning, Through the Night, went nowhere. The Missourian buddies parted ways, the former to session duty and to the inevitable Dillards reunions, the latter to a few great records, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities. Fantastic Expedition represents neither’s apex. It works really well, is all, perhaps best when considered as a kind of artifact - both of and set apart from the time of its making.