ALBUM REVIEWS: Van Dyke Parks – Song Cycle/Discover America/Clang of the Yankee Reaper

Written for the 405

The most accurate summation I’ve read of Van Dyke Park’s music, and it applies best to these first three albums of his storied (if relatively under-the-radar) career, is that it “is both forward-thinking and backward-minded”. His first album, Song Cycle, saw Parks melding the concept of an orchestral “suite” with the popular musical styles and structures of the time (the time in question being the California Dreamin’ Americana heyday of the Beach Boys, CSNY and the like). On Discover America and Clang of the Yankee Reaper he cast an inquiring eye across to Trinidadian calypso music.

As is often the case when you’re working with Big Ideas, the odds aren’t stacked in your favour. So: Van Dyke Parks—he of the endearingly reedy falsetto—a recording life of near-genius nearly as much as it is of near-failure.

Song Cycle is easily the strongest of this trio of re-issues. Coming off the back off the infamously aborted sessions for the Beach Boys’ Smile, Parks approaches this similarly audacious project in a bullish manner. There’s an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink feel to the lush, busy arrangements: big-band horns and ragtime piano spar amusingly on “The All Golden”, opener “Vine Street” begins in medias res with banjos and lap-steel before fading into baroque pop, and many songs are interrupted with field recordings of everything from steam engines to crickets. There really isn’t anything like it.

Having dealt with America—it’s then-current state and potted history—Parks travelled to the West Indies, and became rather enamoured with calypso music along the way. Not enough to completely take his mind off the homeland, mind: no amount of calypso drums can distract from from song titles (and content) like “Bing Crosby” and “FDR In Trinidad”, and the album title Discover America. Perhaps looking back across the Atlantic gave Parks a better view of life there. It certainly made him more chilled out, as the Caribbean vibes take over from Song Cycle‘s intellectualism—although he can’t quite let the horns and orchestras behind. If his first album was, in a way, the prototype for art rock, Discover America was the prefigure of funk, with its bass and bongos. A postcard from someone with a better grasp on enjoying life than the rest of us.

This feeling pervades on Clang of the Yankee Reaper, but is spoilt, to a point, by the album’s being totally drenched in horrible, horrible synthesised strings; a musical analogy to the mawkish lyrics of “Love is the Answer”. Parks’ voice is certainly more full, and the songs are far more streamlined, but “Pass That Stage” and is the only song that really slips back into the effortless groove of Discover America.

Parks’ Magpie-like, eclectic mix of styles on these albums smacks less of a contrived exercise and more like a genuine enthusiasm for lesser-trumpeted styles of music; a modern equivalent would be of Damon Albarn, his Mali Music project not being a million miles (geographically or conceptually) from the latter of these two albums. At times it sounds, as Parks himself describes it, “natural”. At others, such as on Discover America‘s steel-drum performance of “Star and Stripes Forever”, the mash-up of styles and sensibilities is clunky and entirely unnatural. Those are the failed experiments.

“We’ll raise a toast to what’s still left of my memory,” Parks sang alongside frequent collaborator Brian Wilson on 1995’s Orange Crate Art. With these reissues, let’s hope that memory becomes a little stronger. Van Dyke Parks was, and is, someone not so much fearless in his attempt to produce new types of music in a Frankenstein-esque manner as he is an inquisitive mind, who just so happens to share the results of his curiosity with the world. It’s a happy bonus that, some of the time, he surfaces with some good tunes.

Song Cycle: 8/10
Discover America: 7/10
Clang of the Yankee Reaper: 5/10

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