VAN DYKE PARKS
Parks is most famous as a side-man, producer, and arranger. His warped Americana orchestrations adorn records by folks like The Beach Boys and Joanna Newsom. He’s most famous for collaborating with Brian Wilson on the aborted “SMILE” record (and subsequently played a key part in that album’s 2005 reconstruction). His own solo career is a bit sketchier, with only a handful of records spaced out over a 40 year period. But as you will soon learn…his first two albums are simply sublime!
Song Cycle *
Discover America *
Clang Of The Yankee Reaper
Orange Crate Art (With Brian Wilson)
Moonlighting: Live At The Ash Grove
SONG CYCLE (1968)
A short and sweet piece of nearly flawless pop genius. Over forty years after it’s release, Dyke Parks’ debut still feels incredibly progressive and unrivaled in it’s other-wordly arrangement prowess. The focus is Americana – sweeping strings, plucked back-country guitars – but the vibe is psychedelic and dreamy. Beautiful melodies pop in and out of a haze, sung in Parks’ thin eccentric tenor. This album is utterly unique – no other pop record sounds like it as far as I know. It’s like the weirdest moments of “SMILE” taken to an even further extreme, and I really can’t believe this was an expensive major label record! Talking about individual songs is pointless here – it really is a self-contained work – but special points must go to the masterful tracks “Vine Street,” “Palm Desert,” and “Public Domain.” When I first heard this record, it sounded like a load of 60s hippie nonsense without focus or design. But subsequent listens revealed a total classic, with every note meticulously arranged for effect, and an endless tapestry of haunting melodies. The other great thing about Parks is that he’s unabashedly American – even though this is clearly in most ways a 60 “psych-pop” record, it’s also firmly rooted in American folk and bluegrass and classical – quite a nice change of pace from usually way more Euro-centric 60s psych. There are a couple brief moments of daftness here (particularly the middle section of “By The People,” which still comes off as nonsense to me after many many listens!), but in general this is a one-of-a-kind experience and a MUST LISTEN for fans of creative pop music.
DISCOVER AMERICA (1972)
Completely different from “Song Cycle,” and nearly as great! This time Van makes a tribute album to Caribbean music, with a focus on Trinidad (making the title a bit mis-leading for members of the United States). Gone are the weirdo psych-pop arrangements, replaced by steel drums and funky grooves and re-arranged versions of old songs. I don’t think there’s very much original Parks music on here at all – but the re-arrangements are totally awesome, and Parks’ thin voice adds a ton of charm to the proceedings. The playing and production is still totally quirky and exciting – and parts of this remind me quite a bit of The Kinks (mostly due to Parks’ voice). The whole thing has great flow, with no dull moments. Highlights include the awesome Allen Toussaint cover “Riverboat,” the groovy ‘Occapella,” and the seductive “John Jones.” But it’s really all great, and totally unique – and another classic from Van. (BTW – Van produced some other Calypso around this time, and those records are supposedly very similar to this one. I haven’t heard them, but I WANT to!).
CLANG OF THE YANKEE REAPER (1975)
Sort of a more polished and normal sounding version of “Discover America.” This brief (30 minutes) album is made up of mostly covers, played in that same Caribbean style with a lot of weirder Parksian arrangement ideas. But the sound is a lot more 70s and polished, with funky rhythms and synthesizers, and the general vibe is a lot less freaky than before. When I first heard this, it seemed like a total throwaway – like Parks wasn’t even trying. But it revealed some charms eventually, and though I still consider it an inessential part of the man’s discography, it’s a nice addendum to the previous record. The band of session pros sounds amazing throughout, and Parks’ goofy thin vocals add the same kind of eccentricity as last time around. The title track is definitely the most substantial tune on here, especially seeing as it’s an original composition. It conjures up an old-timey nostalgic atmosphere perfectly, and even includes some oddball “Song Cycle”-esque changes. It suffers from the coked out, 70s studio production (as does the rest of the album), but it’s a nice track nonetheless. The rest is pleasant and fun, and it’s over before you know it. But Van would never really make another surprising record like his first two, and this is the first product of a pretty disappointing later-period career (during which he’d focus mostly on production and arranging for other artists).
Nearly ten years after his previous solo record, Parks released this collection of bouncy little tunes based on the Brier Rabbit stories. The subject matter seems perfectly suited to Van’s wacky Americana style, and the children’s story vibe was a part of “SMILE” anyway. Unfortunately, this record was cut in the mid-80s and suffers from lame production, some over-sung guest appearances, and a general lack of grit. It’s all written as jaunty old-timey American roots music, with a bit of Van’s old calypso arrangements sneaking in as well. But everything is WAY too cleanly recorded, and instead of the mysterious oddities of DISCOVER AMERICA, or even the funky session-player grooving of the lesser “CLANG,” this sounds like the music they play in the background at a Six Flags theme park. Or a demo for a mediocre Broadway show. It’s not at all engaging as rock music – but then, that’s never been Van’s thing. But I at LEAST expect it to sound better than theme park music, and it rarely gets there. The arrangements are musical and ever-evolving, and Van’s personality is all over the place. But the thing just sounds like crap. And the songs aren’t all that great either! This is the first set of Parks originals since SONG CYCLE all the way back in the 60s, but he hasn’t really provided enough exciting melodies or haunting ideas this time. Though repeated listens brings out SOMETHING in every track – be it a cool arrangement idea or a little hook. The second half of the record improves vastly on the first, which is made up of generally forgettable tracks (“Opportunity For Two” and “Many A Mile To Go” are both OK ). “An Invitation to Sin” is sung by the annoying Broadway-ish guest female, but it’s probably got the best and weirdest melody! The darker subject matter helps a lot. The other best songs are the last two – “Look Away” has a fun chorus with a nice forceful groove. And my absolute favorite is closer “Hominy Grove,” which uses a lot of the same elements as the rest of the album, but has the strongest melodies and the coolest arrangement. It’s the closest thing on here to a “classic” Parks track. The man’s big fans seem to appreciate this record a lot more than me, and it’s gaining a bit of a nice reputation. But I can’t imagine any rock fan without an EXTREMELY open mind grooving along to this dopey little record.
TOKYO ROSE (1989)
Another too polished-by-half set of originals, this time concerned with American-Japanese relations. Like the previous album, large parts of this sound like show-tunes, and once again Van hires some guest vocalists to help out with a few tracks. The first half of this album is mostly pretty and inspired, though parts verge of adult contemporary and the whole thing is fairly dated and neutered sounding. The opening “American The Beautiful” instrumental is a total throwaway – it sounds like something you’d find on a cheapo Fourth of July CD at PARTY CITY. But the title track is lovely and memorable, and Van sings in that dreamy “Song Cycle” tone that brings a welcome dose of eccentricity to what could have a been a straighter production. The Japanese musical influences are mostly relegated to instrumentation (particularly in the percussion department) – there’s the occasional Asian melodic phrase, but this is generally American pop music. “Yankee Go Home” might have been OK had Van sung it – but 6 minutes of a straining middle-aged Danny Hutton from Three Dog Night does not make for a very enjoyable song. The next two tracks are the best (along with the previously mentioned title track) – “Cowboy” is a very pretty haunting tune with the best melody on the record, and “Manzanar” perfectly creates an expansive romantic old-Hollywood atmosphere. The rest of the album is forgettable and at times tasteless and overly show-tuney. The experimental Americana weirdo from the 60s, and the funky Calypso interpreter of the 70s are really nowhere to be found on this record – this is the less forward-thinking show-tunes dude from “Jump!” So while the record achieves occasional moments of beauty, it’s definitely not essential Van Dyke Parks.
ORANGE CRATE ART (WITH BRIAN WILSON) (1995)
Though Brian handles all the vocals (and the many lush vocal harmonies), this is really a Van Dyke Parks record. Van wrote and arranged everything, and considering the subject matter (all things California) and the singer, you’d expect this to be a return to SMILE territory. Well…not even close. There are some GREAT moments on here – the gorgeous title track is probably the best Parks song since “Song Cycle” – but there are also far too many terrible schmaltzy production decisions. Bad keyboard tones abound, and there’s no “Song Cycle”-esque mystery to the grooves here – it’s all done up with too crystal clear 90s production. This ruins some nice compositions (“Sail Away,” “Wings Of A Dove,” “Movies Is Magic”) – though after the title track nothing in the writing is really up the old standard. Brian sounds surprisingly good on these tracks (though oddly he often comes across as less Beach Boys and more Donald Fagen), and the vocal arrangements are really awesome. Occasional melodies remind me of these guys’ early work, which is no small feat – but you’d certainly expect more oddities and less schmaltz from what is in some ways the follow-up to SMILE. A missed opportunity – but at least we got the title track out of it!!!
MOONLIGHTING (LIVE) (1968)
Van’s only live record was cut in 1998, and it’s a slight but enjoyable set. It’s nice to hear him singing the “Orange Crate Art” album vocals, but without the harmonies the songs miss a little heart. There’s a decent sized band on here, complete with string players, but the focus is on Van’s piano and voice. Unfortunately. there’s only one “Song Cycle” tune (“All Golden”), though at one point you can hear an audience member yell “Palm Desert!” The “Hominy Grove” and “Cowboy” renditions are strong, and it’s nice to hear them freed from the constricted 80s production of “Jump!” and “Tokyo Rose.” This recording also includes a lot of Van’s funny banter and poem recitations- he certainly SOUNDS like the eccentric American hippie you’d expect. This is really a fans-only type release, but it has it’s moments.