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”
]]>Perhaps my favorite track on the album is an instrumental simply titled “Aquarium” which uses Steel Drums to convey a sparkling, haunting underwater dreamscape. Initially I thought it sounded like a variation on a melodies from The Nutcracker but as it turns out it is VDP’s arrangement based on theme by Camille Saint Saens! I guess this writer needs to spend some time listening to Saint Saens! It is really gorgeous stuff and — frankly — it would be awesome to hear in surround sound! Still, it sounds quite wonderful on the LP version, noticeably warmer and rounder than the CD or MP3. Steel drums being played with the finesse of a Vibraphone
“The Parting Hand” might be an alternate universe snapshot weaving around Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (perhaps by way of the Electric Light Orchestra’s Eldorado, at least at one point!). With its gospel-folk a cappella introduction that trip-ily-transistions (yes, trip-ily!) into an utterly gorgeous symphonic pastoral, subdued Harmonica textures offer just the right amount of Southern comfort. Its quite classic and even brings a tear to the eye. This song is listed as a “fantasy on the trad.” Who knew? I guess this writer of Russian Jewish heritage needs to get some good recordings of traditional Church hymns too!
Anyhow, I think you are getting an idea that this music is a journey. A compelling, fun excursion that will warrant repeated listens, each time revealing new layers of ideas and insight.
Actually, the cover art looks like it was modeled after classic Art Deco-inspired travel posters from the 20s and 30s, perfectly complementing the music within. Songs Cycled is probably a very good starting place for the unanointed to explore VDP’s music. It strikes a nice balance between his passions for diverse instrumentation from across the ages without losing focus on the individual songs. This is much more modern music than its sound belies. The pacing is wonderful on this album; especially listening on 12-inch LPs spinning at 45 RPM, you get a breather every 15 minutes or so to flip the side and consider what you just heard.
My LP pressing is generally pretty solid, with only a bit of surface noise appearing on the first side of the disc #1 and only at the very start of the disc.The CD sounds quite good, albeit not with the warm roundness of the LP. The 320 kbps MP3 download is OK for mobile use but I will opt for the CD myself as long as it is here.
Ok, there you have it. I reviewed a Van Dyke Parks album without relying on the words Americana, Brian Wilson or “columnated ruins domino.”
What’s that you say? You don’t get that last reference? This is the internet. Look it up! And then go listen.
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who’s songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.