Graded on a Curve:
Van Dyke Parks & Verónica Valerio,
“Only in America–Solo
en América”

It’s the 21st year of the 2st century (if you haven’t already noticed), and Van Dyke Parks could really rest on his laurels. But no. Hell no. Instead of loafing during quarantine (which would’ve been totally understandable), he spent the time productively, collaborating with singer-songwriter and harpist Verónica Valerio on the 4-song EP “Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America.” The two worked separately with their chosen musicians, exchanging ideas and building the finished songs over distance without having met in person. The music is as warm as a loving embrace, however. It’s out June 11 on 10-inch wax with cover art by Klaus Voormann through BMG subsidiary Modern Recordings.

Verónica Valerio hails from Veracruz, Mexico. Along with studying music at home and in NYC, she’s guest lectured on vocal folk music at Boston’s Berklee College, and has performed in Mexico, the USA, Europe and Asia. Valerio is well-versed in son jarocho, the Veracruz-based regional variant of the folk style son mexicano, but as explained in this EP’s promo text, from a young age she has sought to expand beyond the son jaracho tradition.

That Valerio initiated this collab is ultimately related to Parks’ talent and rep, but it also pertains to his continued relevance as an artist, this significance stemming in part from persistent open-mindedness (progressiveness if you will) that has allowed him not only to work with stalwarts of his generation such as Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, and Harry Nilsson, but also with younger musicians, and with seeming ease. His credits include The Chills, Silverchair, Rufus Wainwright, Vic Chesnutt, Inara George, Grizzly Bear, and notably in regard to “Only in America,” Joanna Newsom.

Parks’ excellence in the role of producer and arranger on Newsom’s Ys might’ve made an impression on fellow harpist Valerio, though the songs that comprise “Only in America” are stylistically distinctive. They are also beautifully sung in Spanish, with her vocals and harp (and occasionally additional instrumentation, such as percussion and violin) having served as the root Valerio sent to Parks for orchestration.

This way of working was the result of quarantine, but at no point does it register as a compromise, which is to say, the four selections here are full-bodied and lively as they offer a sustained collaborative equilibrium. Opener “Veracruz” sets the balance into exquisite motion, with the strength of voice right up front as Valerio sings of home.

The song’s arrangement is as distinguishable as most orchestrations are anonymous. This recognizability was obviously a goal, as one doesn’t seek out Parks in hopes of receiving unexceptional hackwork. But again, Parks’ presence doesn’t dominate the proceedings, and neither does he connect as just plugged-in, which would seem to be a danger when working remotely.

Instead, it’s apparent he really listened and was thoroughly engaged, matching the power of Valerio’s voice with the tough sturdiness of the strings in the lower end (the bedrock) while also enhancing the beauty of her vocal with woodwinds and strings that swirl and soar up high. This is something of a sensible recurring strategy across the four cuts, though it’s in tandem with diversity of approach, as “Cielito Lindo” features Valerio in spoken mode at the start.

As she begins to sing, she’s accompanied by a crisp rhythm that helps to orient the listener to where Valerio is coming from. To elaborate for non-Spanish speakers (of which I am one), even without understanding the words, the language of music is fully comprehensible. The gorgeous glisten of the harp really comes to the fore in “Cielito Lindo” as that rhythm establishes urgency; this is definitely ground-level stuff. It’s social music. People’s music.

Rather than weakening the verve of the root, which is the stereotypical outcome when strings get added to musics with edge, the non-saccharine unpredictability of Parks’ input broadens and brightens. And he adjusts to the specifics (as said, he listens and meets the demands of each song), adding lushness and sweep to the marked increase of the sensual in “The Flight of the Guaca.”

It’s in “Camino a Casa” that Valerio gets deepest into a pop sensibility, singing more smoothly but with a mid-song uptick of intensity that fits very nicely with the harp flourishes, the rhythmic drive and some terrific violin soloing. The cut closes a recording that if too-brief (but described as “a mere taste of their fruits”) is a source of utter pleasure, inspiring frequent repeated spins, all while appreciating Voormann’s nifty cover art (he did Revolver, don’tcha know).

A final thought regarding Parks’ enthusiasm for working with Valerio, which he describes as a learning experience, and further as part of the “browning of America.” Perhaps another way of putting it: North America is more (always has been more) than the sadly too-often divisional art and culture of the USA, and “Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America” illuminates this fact wonderfully, while being a dialogue of the present pointing to a better future. Kudos to Parks for remaining open to it (it’s long been part of his M.O.), and praise to Valerio for exemplifying it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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