Thursday, July 23, 2020

VAN DYKE PARKS: Americana Sublime

Song Cycle -- Van Dyke Parks
What to make of Van Dyke Parks? Purchased for a buck at a garage sale, an over-busy if an often inspired bit of Sixties art-pop. The ambition is the attempted embrace of the width and breadth of American popular music, and though Parks fails to accomplish this, the disc is admirable, with the embrace of Gershwin, ragtime, and Charles Ives being nicely enveloped within a semi-scored album where the "concept" album achieves what other rock art music fails to get; the concept meets up with continuity. Always interesting, though Parks' voice is nasal and over-enunciated. His lyrics have been described as "esoteric Rod McKuen", which is fine if that's all you can think of when poetry comes to mind. It reads more like if James Merrill rhymed consistently in his elongated stanzas. Fantastic job on Randy Newman's "Vine Street". "...But, in truth, more often I just reach for Harry Nilsson...." is what critic Miles Milo said in an online forum when the chatter dwelt on this disc for a few postings.

Point taken, in as much as Nilsson was as hooky as he was the musically brilliant; he was as much a wise guy as a whiz kid. That said, I am getting more into Song Cycle the third and second time I gave it spin today, and for all the obvious trappings of Sixties simulacra when it comes to replicating older regional styles, ala Sgt. Pepper (a curse a few survived when they tried the album-as-art business), this particular disc has integrity and some guts under the esoterica. Parks' version of this exotica is lusher, more loving, and akin to what E.L. Doctorow had done in his period novels Ragtime and World's Fair: the resplendent vision of a more elegant and simple time is made odd and unfamiliar as contemporary psychological crises emerge from the tasseled finery.

His perversions, his dissonances are delightfully bracing, if such a thing can be; the smart move is that he goes after Ives and molds the orchestrated and grandiose Americanism into something large, a little insane but not evil by any means. The ideas work as a unified whole. His grasp of orchestration and classical composition exceeds what Frank Zappa brought to the public. Plus, "Vine Street" is simply one of the best covers of a Randy Newman tune I've come across in my years. An additional plus is his deconstruction of "Donovan's Colours"; the original melody is all but obscured and obliterated outright by Park's inspiring pile-ups of sound and overt virtuosity.

BARRY ALFONSO: (Writer, journalist, essayist, biographer, adds his remarks).
 I thought I would add my praises not only for his music but for your insightful commentary, which nails Mr. Parks' sprawling and sometimes slippery genius as well as anything I've read, particularly your comment about how Song Cycle "molds the orchestrated and grandiose Americanism into something large, a little insane but not evil by any means." That's a key to understanding his peculiar vision: his grounding in American folk idioms, as well as his inherent sweetness and humanity as an artist. I might point out that Van Dyke told me years ago that he felt Song Cycle was something of a production strategy in search of a solid core of songs. I think he was way too harsh in his judgment; in any case, his production ideas were more substantial than many of the "serious" works of his singer/songwriter peers. From what I've heard of it, his latest album Songs Cycled is a worthy successor to his 1967 opus. I like your comparison to Doctorow also -- Parks is a visionary of parallel histories, both musical and cultural, ancient and yet so modern we still haven't caught up with him.

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