Album Reviews: The Rose Garden - A Trip Through the Garden; Gene Clark - Gene Clark Sings for You; Plus Music by Michael Kelsh, Salim Nourallah, and Kevin Gordon

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You may remember the Rose Garden—if you remember them at all—from “Next Plane to London,” a novelty pop number about a singer leaving her boyfriend to seek stardom in England. The catchy but forgettable song, which incorporates spoken airplane boarding announcements, broke into the top 20 in December 1967; but the group failed to deliver a successful follow-up and called it quits the next year. 

A Trip Through the Garden: The Rose Garden Collection, an expanded reissue of their eponymous debut LP, suggests what the single did not: that they deserved to be more than one-hit wonders. Another surprise: it shows that they had a lot in common with the Byrds, a group they called “our favorites.” Indeed, Byrds cofounder Gene Clark, who provides vocals and guitar on one track, reportedly once told the band that “you do Byrds better than we ever did.”

That’s an overstatement and, in fact, a few of the selections here sound as insubstantial as, say, the work of Spanky and Our Gang. But most of this 26-track collection—which incorporates 13 previously unreleased recordings—is less poppy and more impressive than you’d expect. Chief assets include lead singer Diana de Rose’s strong alto; excellent harmony vocals and guitar work; and lots of good material. Among the high points: fine covers of the traditional “Rider” and Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” plus several tracks penned by Clark. The album—which features a 20-page booklet with notes, photos, and credits—ends with a fun albeit less-than-pristine five-song 1967 recording of a California concert that includes “Next Plane to London” and the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star.”

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Speaking of the Byrds and Clark, another new release is Gene Clark Sings for You, which collects 14 of his folk/rock numbers, all written by him, all previously unissued, and all recorded in 1967, shortly after he left his band. He intended eight of them for his own use; the rest are songs he thought the Rose Garden might want to cover. Throughout, the backup is sparse—mostly just a bit of guitar and percussion—but Clark’s melodic compositions and compelling vocals are more than enough to keep me listening. 

In fact, the album is a bit of a revelation. It suggests how large a contribution Clark made to the Byrds—and also how far he might have gone after leaving them had he not faced assorted physical and emotional problems and then died at age 46 from a bleeding ulcer. Though it was recorded more than half a century ago, this music doesn’t sound dated; on the contrary, it foreshadows the alt-country movement and often recalls much more recent material from acts like the Jayhawks.

BRIEFLY NOTED

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Michael Kelsh, Harmony Sovereign. The acoustic folk songs on this fourth solo album from Nashville-based Michael Kelsh are exceptionally well crafted, but what puts the set over the top are his warm, emotive vocals, which remind me of such artists as Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, and B.W. Stevenson. Among the many highlights: the lilting, melancholic “Crazy Dream” and “Better with Goodbyes,” both about letting go of a lost love; the fiddle-spiced “Belfast,” about performing in Ireland, where “the singers will leave a man crying”; and “Back to Your Arms,” a gorgeous love letter. 

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Salim Nourallah, Somewhere South of Sane. This seventh solo album from Dallas-based singer/songwriter Salim Nourallah may take a little time to grow on you, but patience will be rewarded. Nourallah’s gentle vocals—think Nick Drake and the side of John Lennon that emerges in songs like “Julia”—combine with inventive soundscapes to create what he understandably calls “photographs of feelings.” The 71-minute album contains 21 tracks, all penned by Nourallah; and, like many recordings of that length, it could have benefited from a bit of pruning. But the vast majority of this introspective set is melodic and memorable. 

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Kevin Gordon, Tilt and Shine. Kevin Gordon lives in Nashville, but his roots are in Louisiana, as this well-sung collection of swampy, blues-inflected rock suggests. Gordon—whose novelistic tunes have been covered by the likes of Keith Richards, Levon Helm, Irma Thomas, and Southside Johnny—wrote all nine of the tracks (in three cases, with cowriters) and reportedly based every one on a true story. Best cuts include “Right on Time,” an up-tempo rocker with a great guitar break; “One Road Out (Angola Rodeo Blues),” about Louisiana’s Angola, the country’s infamous largest penitentiary; and “Saint on a Chain,” the concisely constructed portrait of a broken man who appears to be on the verge of suicide as he clings for protection to a St. Christopher medal that he inherited from his mother.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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