Release Date: Jul 23, 2013
Record label: Bella Union
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Contemporary Pop/Rock, Art Rock
With a nod to his wonderfully eclectic 1968 debut Song Cycle, legendary arranger/songwriter/producer Van Dyke Parks returns with the postcards from everywhere, Songs Cycled. Whether it’s the bucolic Americana of classic ‘40s and ‘50s musicals that permeates “Sassafras,” the steel drum and marimba Caribbeanality of “Aqua” or the accordion-dusted bit of rippling piano of “All the Golden,” the influences are vast and the instrumentation designed to evoke mood, region and an intense musicality. Parks, who most recently has collaborated with Silverchair and harpist/folkie Joanna Newsom, is perhaps best known for his collaboration with Brian Wilson on the mythic Beach Boys’ project SMILE.
Where do you start with a guy who is basically living history? Equal parts Charles Ives and Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks has been everywhere for five decades now, composing film scores and writing opulent arrangements for everyone from Joanna Newsom to, well, Silverchair. Yet he’s never been as Van Dyke Parks as he was in 1968, when hot on the heels after bailing on the Beach Boys’ abortive Smile project (for which he served as librettist), Parks dropped Song Cycle, a murky and still unknowable masterpiece of postmodern Americana. That album (so rich with allusions, collaborations, jokes, asides, and American musical history to the point that it’s as much fodder for ethnomusicology as it is music criticism) hinted at — nay, urged — a career as prolific as that beginning was prodigious.
Lyricist, composer, songwriter (and sometime actor) Van Dyke Parks has always been a quiet rogue. A Mister Geppetto contently creating works that bloom into strange and wonderful adventures. Most famously involved as a lyricist in the Beach Boys’ Smile sessions (where Mike Love politely told him 'not to fuck with the formula'), Van Dyke Parks has collaborated widely and regularly.
Although long revered as a collaborator and arranger (his place in popular music mythology secured by his work with Brian Wilson on the fabled Smile alone), it is arguable that Van Dyke Parks’ stock as a solo artist has never been higher than it is right now. Last year’s reissue campaign from Bella Union brought a range of his quirky, mischievous music to a new audience and Songs Cycled is being marketed as something rare and treasurable – the first new Van Dyke Parks solo album in 24 years. That the title refers back to Song Cycle, Parks’ 1968 debut and masterpiece, suggests that the PR spin masks a slightly more prosaic reality.
In his career, Van Dyke Parks has collaborated with Brian Wilson on the aborted SMiLE sessions, worked with Frank Zappa, and arranged for everyone from Silverchair to Joanna Newsom. Parks is one of few rightfully considered a living legend. That said, he remains one of those fringe-dwelling geniuses that most music fans couldn’t pick out of a crowd, while generations of musicians praise him for his singular blend of classical arrangements, old-school Americana, and quirky pop sensibilities.
Whole-tone mandolin plinks, the playful hiccup of an accordion, waves of strings, and a middle school band closet's worth of the finest Latin percussion: 10 seconds into Songs Cycled and it's already hard to imagine blaming this music on anyone but Van Dyke Parks. His first high-profile job was as an arranger from songs from Disney's The Jungle Book, and almost nothing about his essential style has changed since. A Van Dyke Parks song is fussy, dense, and well-mannered but has a flair for mischief.
It is both understandable and unfortunate that the solo career of Van Dyke Parks has been overshadowed by his collaborations with Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Understandable, as their collaboration produced one of the most celebrated albums in pop music history, Pet Sounds, as well as the mythical sessions for the aborted Smile project; unfortunate, as the solo works of Van Dyke Parks, while less accessible, have been no less interesting. While it sold next to nothing upon its release in 1968, Parks’ debut Song Cycle has been hailed by rock critics and indie music snobs alike as one of the earliest and most successful concept albums.
Legendary for his skill with arrangement as well as the rich sonic choreography of his productions, producer/songwriter Van Dyke Parks' unique voicings are never more densely detailed than on records issued under his own name. Beginning in 2011, Parks began releasing a series of 7" singles that showcased unreleased material spanning both archives and newly recorded songs, including both covers and re-recorded versions of earlier solo work. Songs Cycled collects the 12 tracks featured on those 7"s, fitting cohesively in album form, despite the fact that some songs were written or even recorded decades apart from the others.
Songwriter Van Dyke Parks has always been the kind of artist whose fans are more compulsive than copious, so it's no surprise that his vinyl seven-inch singles series, which he's been steadily building since 2011, hasn't exactly made headlines. Parks' tangled orchestral-pop compositions and reedy voice have always pleased a more cultish audience than his part collaborators — Brian Wilson, Joanna Newsom and Silverchair, to name a few — but starting with "Wall Street"/"Money is King" in 2011, Parks returned to writing solo, and the result is some of his best work since his heyday in the late '60s and early '70s (though I'm very fond of 1984's Jump, as well). Parks swore that the singles, which featured eye-catching cover art from noteworthy modern artists like Art Spiegelman, Ed Ruscha, and Klaus Voorman, would remain as singular, audiophile-level collectibles, but it seems someone convinced him to compile them.
To describe Parks’ approach to popular song as “leftfield” barely scratches the surface of the 70-year-old’s dizzying musical CV. His writing with Brian Wilson on The Beach Boys’ Smile has been well documented, but it takes a brave pair of ears to rush headlong into the obtuse, contrary and wrong-footing world of records that feature Parks’ name on the sleeve. While in theory a new album, Song Cycled teasingly takes the listener on journeys back in time (the title alludes to his 1967 debut solo release, Song Cycle).
Forty-five years on from his debut album, Song Cycle, American arranger, lyricist and musical scholar Van Dyke Parks (the Beach Boys, Joanna Newsom) compiles a dozen recent(ish) works to mark turning 70. Those coming fresh to Parks may find his reedy voice, and his warping of time, requires some adjustment. Aficionados of Parks's highly maverick take on pre-rock songcraft, however, will relish these updates, which take in his penchant for accordions, calypso and folk.
Van Dyke Parks' first new material in almost 20 years shows his kooky-genius orchestral Americana (see his work on Brian Wilson's Smile and Joanna Newsom's Ys) to be as inspired as ever. A companion to his 1968 head-turner, Song Cycle, conceived as a set of seven-inch singles, the LP shows his ear remains a melting pot: Opening with a Malagasy folk song, he sings of France with musette bagpipes ("Dreaming of Paris") and arranges Saint-Saëns for Trinidadian steel band. "Wall Street" conjures 9/11 with piercing images.
Van Dyke Parks’s musical career has been an odd one, to say the least. He now sports bona fide hipster credentials, having served as arranger on Joanna Newsom’s brilliant Ys and, more recently, performed with members of Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes. What’s a bit puzzling, though, is figuring out how he ended up in this position. After a brief career as a child singer/actor and his abortive stint as Brian Wilson’s collaborator on Smile, Parks has only released seven solo albums in his own name over the past 45 years (six if one doesn’t count the 1995 Brian Wilson collaboration Orange Crate Art), and only two of these (1968’s Song Cycle and 1972’s career pinnacle Discover America) get anywhere near the status of classics.
In a recent interview in the Guardian, Van Dyke Parks states candidly and reflectively how he realized back in the 60?s that, “Fame could be an inconvenience and time has borne me out. ” And the legendary songwriter/composer/lyricist/producer’s decidedly underappreciated career has certainly stayed true to his convictions, as Parks has quietly but convincingly helped shape the direction of modern music, albeit mostly from the safe and subtle distance of the sidelines while gratefully ceding the spotlight to more famous artists. Whether through his ill-fated attempts at co-writing the Beach Boys’ Smile with Brian Wilson, to producing albums for Randy Newman, Phil Ochs, and Joanna Newsom (to name just a few), as well as arranging songs for U2, Frank Black, Fiona Apple and Saint Etienne (and many others), in addition to writing and recording his own experimental 1968 solo debut album, Song Cycle, Parks has helped influence and guide not only where music has been heading, but what it can sound like once it gets there, for well over 40 years now.