Composer, arranger, lyricist, singer, former child actor, and “One of the…geniuses of American pop music” according to no less an authority than Pere Ubu’s David Thomas, Van Dyke Parks’ seminal first three albums Song Cycle, Discover America, and Clang Of The Yankee Reaper have been re-released on Bella Union. Although his albums never reached the status of say, Pet Sounds or Sgt. Peppers, their relative obscurity has allowed them to slowly acquire a mystique, a kind of reverence amongst pop enthusiasts that sees them as forgotten American classics.
Song Cycle is Parks musical attempt to “capture the sense of California as a Garden of Eden”. It’s a musical trip through Southern California, a kaleidoscopic blur of 50’s rock’n’roll, vaudeville and psychedelia. You can hear the sunshine in the reverb echoing off of the instruments. Parks’ genius is to take the music of America, its folk songs and pop songs, and to weave them into a wider cultural mythology. Each song is a sophisticated arrangement of American musical tropes. The ragtimes pianos and baroque string arrangements don’t just work within the individual songs but are signifiers of the wider musical styles which make up American musical culture. The songs themselves are slices of beautiful baroque pop. Palm Desert rivals anything by the Beach Boys. All Golden is a cinematic evocation of both the Alabama countryside and Silver Lake Boulevard. A lyric goes “…them country boys don’t cotton much to one two three four”. The next track Van Dyke Parks is actually a quiet cover of the hymn Nearer, My God, To Thee under recordings of battle from Vietnam.
As with all the best music there is a quality of timelessness to Song Cycle that transcends various genres on display. Ironically for its title, Discover America is an exploration of Parks fascination with calypso music. But the title makes sense in context. Discover America is a collection of calypso cover songs which refer to various characters and incidents within American history, ranging from its music and culture (Jack Palance, Bing Crosby, The Four Mills Brothers) to its politics (FDR In Trinidad, G-Man Hoover). Parks covers music about America by non-Americans, bringing them full circle, presenting simultaneously contrasting anthropological documents of both American history, and calypso music. It all ends with a short cover of Stars & Stripes Forever played on steel drums, a perfect summation of the album’s spirit.
Clang Of The Yankee Reaper continues Parks’ interest in calypso but mixes it with a wider selection of musical styles and even introduces some electronic instruments. The title track is perfect pop music. As an indicator of its eclecticism, the album ends with the grooviest take on Pachelbel’s Cannon In D you could ever hope to hear.
Van Dyke Parks, sometimes bewildering, always bewitching, and always enlightening first three albums place him in a lineage of American composers, like Harry Partch, John Fahey, or Don Van Vliet, who each managed to capture something of the American experience in music that is both strange and beautiful.