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Van Dyke Parks - Songs Cycled

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Artist: Van Dyke Parks

Album: Songs Cycled

Label: Bella Union

Review date: Aug. 6, 2013

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. The remainder of Parks’s career has been spent as arranger/producer for other artists (including decidedly un-hip acts ranging from Little Feat to Silverchair), film/TV composer, and head of Warner Brothers Records audiovisual department.

For all that though, Parks is indisputably a brilliant artist, in many respects precisely because of his protean character and reluctance to present himself as the singer/songwriter suggested by Song Cycle. Parks’s complexity and unique career makes an evaluation of Songs Cycled a bit tricky. Where does it fit in with the rest of his work, why is it appearing now, and which Parks avatars does it privilege? But even if one stops short of granting it any masterpiece-level accolades, it’s an impressively accomplished and enjoyable late-career effort and an entirely plausible attempt on Parks’s part to establish himself as the venerable recording artist his young admirers see him as. Indeed, the title seems to suggest both a return to the past and a completion that could only be accomplished now, a kind of movement that rewrites history by altering the present.

The material here isn’t new in any respect, as the album collects the six 7” singles that Parks has put out through his Bananastan label over the past few years. This hardly makes Songs Cycled any less of an album proper though, especially if one considers the jukebox feel that characterizes Parks’s best albums. As is usually the case with Parks, most of the compositions are older as well, ranging from a solo piano rendition (and what a pianist he is!) of Song Cycle’s “The All Golden” to Orange Crate Art’s “Hold Back Time. Parks even goes so far as to include his production of the Esso Trinidad Steel Band’s rendition of Saint-Saens “Aquarium” (from Carnival of the Animals) originally released in 1971. The “new” material here, meanwhile, includes both Parks originals (some of his finest ever) and covers of calypso and folk tunes (“Money is King,” “Amazing Graces”).

The sound, though, is recognizable as pure Parks from the opening strains of the instrumental “Wedding in Madagascar,” with its odd melding of calypso, mariachi and Copland-esque Americana. Indeed, everything on Songs Cycled suggests that Parks is finally trying to become fully himself, tying the strands of his protean career into a single signature work. Accordingly, all the best of Parks is here: “Black Gold,” recounting the 2002 Prestige Oil Spill, shows a gift for storytelling and narrative construction only rivaled by the effortless perfection of its swirling string arrangements. “Sassafras” gives us Parks-as-southern gentleman, pumping up a pastoral trifle into a jittery and manic declaration of love. For those who prefer Parks’s take on calypso, his rendition of Growling Tiger’s “Money is King” stands comfortably alongside similar efforts on Discover America and The Clang of the Yankee Reaper. Parks is trying hard here, taking his time to find the perfect material and making sure that its execution finds every hair in place. He knows that expectations are high for him, and he seems to want to meet them.

Songs Cycled does indeed meet expectations, but its virtues also sap a bit of pleasure from the proceedings. In giving us the Parks we want (or all of the Parkses we want, to be more precise), the album loses that vertiginous dissolution of authorship and element of surprise that made Discover America such a stunning work. We always know where Parks is here, as opposed to the effect created by the patchwork feel of his early albums, which gave us the sense that the maestro was always just about to disappear, melting imperceptibly into the calypso and folk tunes that he so palpably loves. Similarly, the somewhat murky feel of Parks best works — that veneer of found or cobbled-together material paradoxically coupled with unmistakably professional arrangements — is minimized here, both through clear attributions (Parks’s website provides full background information on each track) and overly-polished production (not to mention the wholly unnecessary pitch correction audible on “Sassafras”).

In a word, Songs Cycled feels a bit sterile. This is hardly enough to sink it, and indeed, it’s probably the most satisfying solo album Parks has put out since Discover America (although the Joel Chandler Harris-inspired Jump! does have its partisans). It carries the manic, youthful energy of Parks’s very best works, plants itself deep inside the listener’s brain as though tapping into some deep American (meaning in this case both North American and West Indian) musical unconscious, and magically holds together as a single, unified and exhilarating listening experience despite its meandering through a dauntingly wide range of material and approaches.

By Michael Cramer

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