Music

Van Dyke Parks: Songs Cycled

Songs Cycled boasts melodies and arrangements that would have made as much sense in 1933 as in 2013, though the lyrics occasionally acknowledge the political and environmental tumult of the early 21st century.


Van Dyke Parks

Songs Cycled

Label: Bella Union
US Release Date: 2013-07-23
UK Release Date: 2013-04-06
Amazon
iTunes

It is both understandable and unfortunate that the solo career of Van Dyke Parks has been overshadowed by his collaborations with Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Understandable, as their collaboration produced one of the most celebrated albums in pop music history, Pet Sounds, as well as the mythical sessions for the aborted Smile project; unfortunate, as the solo works of Van Dyke Parks, while less accessible, have been no less interesting.

While it sold next to nothing upon its release in 1968, Parks' debut Song Cycle has been hailed by rock critics and indie music snobs alike as one of the earliest and most successful concept albums. In certain respects, it sounds very much like a product of its time, with occasionally wild, psychedelic arrangements and over-the-top instrumentation that overshadows Parks' gift for writing beautiful melodies. Five years later, Parks would release one of the most criminally underappreciated albums of the 1970s. Discover America is a wonderfully bizarre, immaculately produced, and eminently listenable suite of Calypso, 1930s pop, and Southern rock; it is also the perfect soundtrack to a cross-continent road trip.

Van Dyke Parks' newest release, Songs Cycled, fits somewhere in between Song Cycle and Discover America, sampling a wide variety of musical traditions while at the same time supported by the songwriter's pop sensibility. Parks' first release of original material in more than a decade, Songs Cycled is mostly composed of seven-inch singles which the artist has been quietly releasing over the past three years, though the album is best digested as a whole, with remarkable flow and steady pacing throughout.

Some listeners will find Songs Cycled overwhelming. There is a lot going on here, though on repeat listens it becomes clear that the artist has everything well under control. Fans who appreciated the micromanaged bombast of the Beach Boys' recently (and finally) released Smile will find much to appreciate on Songs Cycled.

Part of what made Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks such a successful songwriting partnership in the 1960s was the pair's shared reverence for the original architects of American popular music. Although Pet Sounds remains one of the most innovative and forward-thinking pop albums of all time, the songs themselves sound as if they belong in the Great American Songbook. Songs Cycled, too, boasts melodies that would have made as much sense in 1933 as in 2013, though the lyrics occasionally acknowledge the political and environmental tumult of the early 21st century.

In many ways this is the most timely and political album of Parks' career. Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and the financial crisis are all explored here, though it takes a keen ear to tease out the references; Parks' principal talents have always been in constructing intricate melodies and arrangements, and the lyrics are often overshadowed by the blunt force of the music accompanying them, not to mention the obvious pleasure Parks takes in singing them. Parks' voice has always been a thin and limited instrument, though few vocalists could enunciate such complex lines with similar precision and joy.

It is unsurprising that Van Dyke Parks found limited success upon embarking on a solo career in the late 1960s. In the wake of Sgt. Pepper, the songwriter's nods to Cole Porter and Gershwin seemed antiquated and passé. In light of the recent avalanche of quirky, independent, orchestral-inspired pop-rock, Parks seems to "fit" better in 2013 than in 1968. The urgent "Missin' Mississippi" sounds like it could be a Dirty Projectors b-side, while the wistful "Hold Back Time" would not have sounded out of place on any of Rufus Wainwright's recent efforts. In all of this, the immense debt that modern rock and pop artists owe to Van Dyke Parks becomes clear.

Van Dyke Parks has been pushing the boundaries of the possible in American popular music for more than four decades, all the while retaining a timeless Tin Pan Alley sensibility. It seems unlikely that the artist will ever be widely recognized for his contribution, but in the meantime, Songs Cycled should provide energy and inspiration for VDP evangelists everywhere.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."

Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.