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Music Review: Van Dyke Parks – Songs Cycled

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Most folks know the name Van Dyke Parks best for his work with Brian Wilson on “Heroes and Villains,” the long unreleased Smile sessions, and Wilson solo projects like the 2008 That Lucky Old Sun (A Narrative). However, Parks first got on my radar screen when excerpts from his 1968 Song Cycle were presented on several of those old two-dollar, two-disc Warner Brothers promo samplers. Record Show? The Big Ball? I had them all and, no question, built a major chunk of my library based on the variety of artists offered on those outstanding loss leaders.

“The All Golden” from Song Cycle was one of those tracks. Back in those days, Warner Brothers was billing Parks and Randy Newman as their twin Golden Boys, and both needed and deserved the hype. They didn’t fit any trends in any measurable way. How could you define or categorize Song Cycle? In those days, Parks looked like a nerdy choirboy who sounded like a mad musical scientist who had been given the keys to the studio with an unlimited budget. (Song Cycle was one of the most expensively produced pop albums up to that time.) It was pioneering, innovative, earned critical favor, and sank on the charts.

Forty-five years later, Parks is 70 and “The All Golden” is one of his re-imaginings on his new Songs Cycled, his first collection of new material since 1995’s Orange Crate Art. After all these years, it’s still pointless to try to define or categorize him. Americana? Avant-garde? Well, Americana only if you accept the Continental colorings of songs like “Dreaming of Paris.” As with everything Parks has ever done, this is Americana if you literally reach back to the mid-19th century and then shuffle the deck with string quartets, accordions, harpsichords and other keyboards. Other than the lyrics, there’s nothing that’s going to get you thinking of country, folk, rockabilly, or any combination thereof.

Ironically, the most “bare bones” song of the set is the new “All Golden.” Instead of the original rather psychedelic early use of synthesizers and electronic vocal tricks, the 2013 version is Parks straight-forward, with plaintive singing, piano, and accordion. The rest of the album is layered but mostly relies on traditional instruments arranged with very contrapuntal time signatures and unusual tunings.

Parks reaches back to 1835 for the hymn “The Parting Hand,” and “Amazing Graces” is an instrumental with the Van Dyke Parks Orchestra. Fans of Parks’ 1972 release Discover America, where his interest in calypso music and the steel drums of Trinidad and Tobago were on display, will find much to remind them of that set. “Aquarium” is a cover of an 1886 Saint-Saëns piece recorded in 1971 with the Esso Trinidad Steel Band. The international flavor continues in the Parks-arranged “Wedding in Madagascar,” a traditional a cappella folk song. Among the many songs full of contemporary social commentary is “Money Is King,” written with Growling Tiger, a.k.a. Trinidadian calypso musician Neville Marcano.

Parks’ lyrics contain unmistakable opinions about the world we live in. His views on big oil are evident in “Black Gold,” his “fantasy” on the sinking of The Prestige off the coast of the Bay of Biscay. “Dreaming of Paris” explores the American bombing of Baghdad. “Wall Street,” paired with “Money Is King,” is clearly about how the rich get richer and the rest of us aren’t equal with dogs.

But there are plenty of tunes that are more about sonic experimentation or are personal favorites. “Sassafras,” originally recorded by Billy Edd Wheeler in 1961, Parks claims, is about his youth in North Carolina. The original “Missin’ Missippi” [sic] is from the same playful mold. “Hold Back Time” is a re-recording of a 1995 song from Orange Crate Art with Brian Wilson.

In short, Songs Cycled is a rather sophisticated tour de force, with Parks showing off all his chops as a composer, arranger, producer, performer, lyricist, and, to a lesser degree, singer. It’s not for everyone. It’s beautiful but disconcerting, has one eye to the past but another firmly in the now, and is completely unpredictable from start to finish. This is an album you should sample at the Parks website or on YouTube and then decide if you want the full course. You’ll hear nothing else like it in 2013. Sounds like what we were saying in 1968. Now, that’s a musical recycle.

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About Wesley Britton