Graded on a Curve:
Van Dyke Parks,
Songs Cycled

It’s been forty-five years since Van Dyke Parks released his amazing debut LP Song Cycle, a record that was the huge first step in the career of one of the USA’s most reliably interesting cult artists. Now he’s back with Songs Cycled, and it just might be the best record Parks has released since his ’72 masterpiece Discover America.

There’s no use beating around the bush, so let me just state it up front. The first two albums from the sui generis American institution Van Dyke Parks form one of the most hallowed nooks in this writer’s entire record collection. His enthralling ’68 debut Song Cycle and its delightful follow-up from ’72 Discover America combine into an ideas-drenched, warmly eccentric combo punch, the first perhaps best (or at least, succinctly) described as Baroque Americana, the second a love-soaked Calypso tribute that also serves as a shrewd, non-didactic commentary on the country of its title.

Two perfect records, in my estimation, and they also sit securely amongst the most individualist of masterpieces. That basically means not everybody digs ‘em, but this guy sure does. I also happen to dig The Clang of the Yankee Reaper, Parks’ third album from ‘75. But while still a masterful statement, it does continue to impact these lobes as a somewhat lesser achievement than its predecessors, mainly because it’s far more grounded than his first and registers as simultaneously less ambitious and tangibly more accessible than his second.

On The Clang of the Yankee Reaper, Parks’ talent was still in total abundance, but an ear could also detect a desire to actually sell a few records; his first was critically acclaimed but stiffed, and his second was largely ignored by writers and listeners in roughly equal measure. In retrospect this shouldn’t be a surprise, for Parks’ uniqueness has never been an easy sell.

Those who know Parks by name through his intriguing collaboration with Brian Wilson or his long list of credits as producer and arranger might be stunned by how seldom his music actually intersects with the rock and pop activity that surrounded his emergence on the scene. It does bear mentioning that his association with the Beach Boys came after Pet Sounds, when Wilson had essentially broke with the bona fides of trad-based vocal harmony pop and post-Chuck Berry rocking that informed the Boys’ earlier stuff.

Additionally, his production and arranging largely assisted musicians only moderately related to the commercial norms of rock and pop; Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, and a whole lotta folkies. But the biggest proof actually comes through his records. Song Cycle is accurately described as psychedelic at times, but on the whole it was unlike anything else that was happening in 1968. And Discover America found Parks’ nostalgia turning not to the expected ‘70s zone of the 1950s, but to music of Trinidad, much of it of ‘40s vintage and concerned with topics such as Bing Crosby and J. Edgar Hoover.

If his third release found him reining it in a bit, it wasn’t any kind of desperately discomfiting maneuver in hopes of marketplace acceptance, and it’s no shock that it didn’t sell much either. As a result nearly a decade elapsed before Jump! appeared in 1984. That one, a retelling of the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris found Parks easily sidestepping the problematic issues that continue to needle his old employer Disney in relation to the same source material, specifically the animation studio’s perpetually missing-in-action motion picture Song of the South.

Parks was co-lyricist, pianist, and composer on the LP, but his skills as arranger were notably absent, and while the record has a heap of positive attributes and strong moments, whenever I hear it I can’t help but think it could’ve been substantially more. For one thing, I choose to believe that Parks would’ve eschewed the record’s at times less than spectacular drum ambiance. To elaborate, even when it’s hitting hard, the rhythm can nag as soft, and in a manner that could only come from the mid-section of the 1980s.

But it’s also quite possible that Jump! sounds exactly the way Parks wanted it to. Anyway, he didn’t make the album for me. It’s a kid’s record, pure and simple. Indeed, the LP accompanied a children’s book, which is what the Uncle Remus stories were in the first place. That Jump! is one of the least immediately taggable kid’s recs I’ve ever laid ears upon is testament to not only Parks’ smart conception (no insulter of tykes’ intelligence is he) but also to his staying power in an era that treated musicians of limited commercial potential very harshly.

Next came ‘89’s Tokyo Rose, and if easily his most grandly scaled effort since his debut, it did signify a big shift in Parks’ sensibility. A concept record about the history of Japanese-American relations largely inspired by and partially concerned with the late-‘80s economic friction between the two nations, Tokyo Rose is by design instantly dated, which shouldn’t in any way be absorbed as a criticism.

It’s just quite different from where he was at in ’68-’72. His output during that period was thoughtfully bursting with form and content and yet it was so out-of-step with the trends of the era (youthful vigor from an old soul) as to be rendered ultimately timeless. Not so with the oft very good Tokyo Rose. There was still nobody like him, but with this LP he was closer to an essentially Broadway-like orientation than ever before. Thusly, over the decades I’ve come to admire Tokyo Rose far more than I love it.

I feel the same way about his ’95 collab with Wilson, Orange Crate Art, a record that deserved better critical and commercial treatment than it received upon release. So my subsequent assessment on Parks was that he was too great of an artist to ever flub it up badly (au contraire, his ’98 release Moonlighting- Live at Ash Grove is quite good), but that his best days were unfortunately long behind him. And his gradual emergence as an abettor of a younger generation of musicians came as such a pleasant surprise that it effectively fit like a custom-fitted panama hat atop his distinguished career.

But his acumen with names as diverse as Vic Chesnutt, Silverchair, and Joanna Newsom actually made a whole lot of sense. You gotta figure they relished the opportunity to work with a full-fledged senior citizen who was actually eager to help them realize their intentions rather than just subtly guiding them toward a repetition of their former selves. As evidence, his orchestral arrangements for Newsom’s masterpiece Ys are simply astounding.

Prior to that record, Newsom was a very talented component in the then teeming freak-folk milieu. With Ys, she made one of the best albums of this young century. The credit comes down to her of course, but Newsom’s choice of collaborators was obviously crucial. And the fruits of this union made it very clear that a surplus of creative vitality continued to flow through Parks’ being.

So when he began issuing some new work on a series of 7-inch records via his own Bananastan label a few years back, it should’ve been a stone cinch for this writer to saunter right up to their contents. But instead I elected to take the safe route to his 2011 compilation Arrangements: Volume 1, a disc which gathers up a terrific hunk of previously hard to locate goodies from the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

The contents of those recent 45s are now included in Songs Cycled, the album released in the US this week by the label Bella Union, and listening to its 12 tracks drives home just how nonsensical my decision was to overlook fresh material in favor of earlier rewards. For after ample inspection it’s apparent that Parks has taken the idea that his best period is long over and deposited it securely in the waste-bin of faulty notions.

The title of the record might give the impression that Parks is in some way reexamining his earliest work in an aged attempt to sum it all up, but that concept is only partially relevant at best, for a significant portion of the track-listing finds him as topically engaged as he was at the point of Tokyo Rose.

There’s “Wall Street,” a tune dealing with the fallout of 9/11, “Dreaming of Paris,” an exploration of the US bombing of Bagdad, “Black Gold,” an examination of corporate misconduct and oil spills, “Missin’ Missippi,” a reflection upon the effects of Hurricane Katrina, and “Money is King,” the topic of which should be self-explanatory.

These cuts collectively reveal how Parks’ social voice, which was palpably resonant as far back as Discover America, has matured into a highly effective, if delightfully and familiarly esoteric, instrument of political protest. And some might feel the breadth of his scope undermines the points he’s making, but Parks is far too savvy to ever succumb to hectoring.

But where the subject matter of Tokyo Rose loomed as large as his aural sweep, on Songs Cycled he engages with the topics in a far more concise manner, less Broadway-inclined and more in keeping with folk tradition, and that’s a simply fantastic turn of events. But the main point of business here is a cache of tunes that basically reveal Parks’ artistry as undiminished, though with a different sense of scale.

His debut was a sweeping statement that connected like a young man overflowing with both genius and the desire to prove it, but on every album since then, with the possible exception of Tokyo Rose, his superb gush has been less grandly designed, though Parks agnostics continue to often confuse his smarts for mere showiness.

Interestingly, the production and playing here is some of the most intimate in his entire discography. Where much of his prior work situates the listener inside a spacious speculative amphitheater, a space where many have sadly gotten lost, the vast majority of Songs Cycled feels like it inhabits a smaller, warmer environment, one with deeper acoustics that ears new to Parks could possibly find very attractive.

It bears mentioning that a significant element in this record’s success does pertain to its title. Some of what’s here is indeed a return to earlier material, but the restatement of older motifs neither disappoints in relation to their previous models or conversely casts his more recent work as inferior to the classic stuff. So both his startlingly gorgeous new version of “The All Golden,” originally from his first album, and the appearance of “Aquarium,” a ’71 recording from the terrific LP Parks produced for the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, creates any dissonance in this album’s construction.

That the exquisite new cut “The Parting Hand,” a track inspired by the old-time Southern choral tradition known as Sacred Harp singing (the song also briefly referencing the warhorse Christian hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”) sits so securely next to “The All Golden,” with Parks’ delivery in this incarnation detectably more accessible than in the original’s fascinating yet formidable disposition, is testimony to the continued clarity of his artistic vision.

Not every song here is up to the same high standard, but nothing falls under the level of at least very good. And this gent’s very good is stronger than most people’s lifetime finest. While in conception Songs Cycled is as much of a compilation as Arrangements: Volume 1, it can’t help but connect like a very welcome brand new Van Dyke Parks album. That it plays like his best in decades is an eloquent commentary upon the sheer depth of his talent.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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