Song Cycled is a joyful global trek by the legendary arranger, producer, lyricist, composer and musician,Van Dyke Parks (VDP). As much has been written about VDP over the years establishing his place in the music history books, I am always amazed how many people are unfamiliar with his music.
What's that? You don't know who VDP is? Well, then get thee to your favorite search engine and look him up!
That said, I'm going to try do something here that I've personally not seen many reviewers attempt: actually tell you what the music of Van Dyke Parks sounds like! Not an easy task, especially when trying to avoid overused catch phrases like "Americana!"
This full bodied CD and warmer-still, rounder sounding two LP set (spinning at 45 RPM on 180-gram vinyl) is a fine showcase for VDP, offering something of an overview of his widescreen, cinema-scopic music. Now, its important to go into this with an open mind as VDP's voice is a bit of an acquired taste, sounding a bit elfin at times. I mean that in a very good way, and not comic way. Perhaps pixelated is a better way to describe his voice, which lends an appropriately surreal yet very human touch to the music. The man carries a melody well, singing with passion and commitment to his music.
Case in point, the song "Hold Back Time" -- which originally appeared on his 1995 collaboration with Brian Wilson, Orange Crate Art --fares much better here with VDP in front of the microphone instead of the intensely harmonious Beach Boy lead vocal. Why? Well, as I hear it this is a heartfelt love song that demands a certain level of intimacy which was somewhat glossed over by Wilson's dense, multi-layered treatment. I'll put it this way: at the time of its release, I admittedly spent more time reveling in the fact that Wilson was actually making new music and less on the fact that he was singing a poignant love song by VDP! Accordingly, on this version, you can't help but pay attention to the lyrics and hear the obviously very personal love story smiling through your speakers, a lovely Tango of courtship and growing old with one's soulmate.
It would be far too easy to write off VDP's music as theatrical music. I think it is much much more than that. This is very high level pop song writing, delivering complex compositional twists this side of Frank Zappa with the melodic finesse of Gershwin and the joy of Cole Porter (as sung, perhaps, by legendary cabaret singers like Bobby Short). VDP creates a sonic ebb and flow that washes over and under you -- sometimes, it can pitch you head over heels as if drawn under a rip tide! Time signatures and key changes can whizz by at a dizzying pace -- leaving the listener with that sort of thrill you had as a kid when tumbling down a grassy hillside on a sunny Summer afternoon. Instrumental voices percolate in and out. Your head spins, yet the balmy air smells so good and the rich green grass stains on your knees retain that memory forever.
A String section, jazzy Piano, Steel Drums and Accordion textures navigate Porgy & Bess-inspired female choirs on "Black Gold" as VDP weaves a dark tale of a doomed oil tanker and the tempestuous relationship it has with its Captain (the "She" in this story is the boat!)
"Then she hit the water with a shudder
It had got her As she went down
Heard to utter was the captain in his cups
What's up? says Sez "In my gut I know we all are doomed!"
She broke up A hemmorhage of Oil gushed A Rage abroil from the soiled foil of her Hull And She was pulled beneath the Waves
Into her grave down in the gloom"