Samuel Andreyev – “A Discussion with Van Dyke Parks: The Vernacular and Beyond” (2018)

June 17, 2019 at 1:20 pm (Music, Van Dyke Parks)

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Van Dyke Parks – “Songs Cycled” (2013)

August 10, 2013 at 11:21 am (Music, Reviews & Articles, Van Dyke Parks)

This review comes from the Pitchfork Media website, dated May 6th of this year. The great Van Dyke Parks…

Whole-tone mandolin plinks, the playful hiccup of an accordion, waves of strings, and a middle school band closet’s worth of the finest Latin percussion: 10 seconds into Songs Cycled and it’s already hard to imagine blaming this music on anyone but Van Dyke Parks.

His first high-profile job was as an arranger from songs from Disney’s The Jungle Book, and almost nothing about his essential style has changed since. A Van Dyke Parks song is fussy, dense, and well-mannered but has a flair for mischief. It is simple in rhythm but complex in harmony. It is preferential to funny noises. It is deeply American – like banjos on the porch American – and yet like all good American things is preoccupied by what it finds exotic, whether it’s Trinidadian Calypso or mid-period French Romanticism. It can be broken down into a million pieces and subjected to intense ethnomusicological analysis. The best of them also happen to be easy and satisfying to whistle.

Songs Cycled collects six 7″ singles he has released over the past few years through his own label, Bananastan. “Bananastan” is a very Parksian construction: A fictional foreign country named after something people eat for breakfast. (It’s out now on Bella Union in the UK and in July in the US.) Like all his albums, it’s cheerful and maddeningly detailed. At times it can feel like musical theater minus the stage, or like a tiny jewelry box, beautiful to behold but too small to actually put anything in. Its songs reflect dryly on corporate greed and joyfully on a woman named Sassafras, whose kisses are so hot she turns swimming holes to steam.

A lot of what’s here has appeared before, elsewhere and in different forms. “The All Golden” was on his 1968 debut Song Cycle; “Hold Back Time” was on his 1995 collaboration with the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Orange Crate Art. “Aquarium” is actually a 1971 recording of the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, performing Parks’s arrangement of a section from Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals.

And then there’s the traditional music that belongs to nobody. “Amazing Grace” appears briefly, as does the indestructible hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. “The Parting Hand” is a song traditionally sung in Sacred Harp meetings, a type of unaccompanied choral music known for its clear, bellowing sound. When they appear they appear more as quotes than centerpieces; small towns seen from trains.

It makes sense that Parks retreads older material: He is one of those rare artists who seems to have come out fully formed, with a clear, narrow and diamond-hard vision of what he wanted his music to be. Listening to his discography can be like listening to a manic, brilliant person try and explain the same idea to you over and over again from slightly different perspectives, flapping their hands excitedly, sulking when you confess you still don’t quite get it, then waving it all away with yet another joke you won’t understand until three hours later.

One of the ironies of Parks’s music is that there’s so much going on that it can be hard to figure out what to pay attention to. He rarely sticks to a single theme or emotion. (“Busy” is not an emotion.) He is fluent in simple folksy languages but has a compulsion about speaking in any fewer than five of them at once. Rich, dense moments worthy of human attention fly by one after the other, like a wall where pictures are hung frame-to-frame.

At best Songs Cycled deals in quick-pivot moments: the stark, unified sound of the choir on “The Parting Hand” giving way to a misty string section, or Parks’s wiry voice snapping out of the confusion of “Wall Street” with a line like “There is just nothing but ash in the air/ Confetti all colored with blood.” What these moments do – especially in the context of music so dense and restless – is frame Parks’s range. In an instant, he reminds you of the extremes he’s capable of: Cynicism and tenderness; clear lyricism and manic density; buttoned-up orchestras and dressed-down steel bands.

I often think I would like his music more if it were simpler and more direct. Clearly he’s capable of it. (I’ve always liked 1972’s Discover America best partially because it allows me to imagine Parks as a cruise-ship entertainment director, but more because it just isn’t as cluttered as some of his other albums.)

But his stubbornness is part of who he is. “I guess I am like that rusty nail that sticks out, just waiting to be hammered down by an intolerant bastard,” he wrote this year. In 1968, at the height of blues-derived psychedelic rock, he released Song Cycle, an album essentially rejecting all music made after 1940. Under his suspenders and little straw hats, Van Dyke Parks is often crafting some highly refined iteration of the sentiment fuck y’all. 

Ultimately, he’s an artist whose shortcomings are all products of his ambition. There are worse places to be. Some artists run out of ideas; Parks seems to constantly have three more than the typical cognitive load of the human brain allows.

His albums don’t capture lightning in a bottle, they exist as documents of all the effort he put into them. In the end it’s that effort – that joyful, obsessive effort of the solitary man tinkering in his study from sunup to sundown again – that makes him sympathetic. “Lest I get ahead of you,” he wrote in 2011. “My heart will be in the work.” Not “art,” not “expression,” but work: that thing we all have to do but only at our best seem to enjoy doing. “Work” is – and has always been – Parks’s forte. If he misses the forest for the trees it’s only because he’s having too much fun sculpting the ridges on each beautiful inch of bark.

Mike Powell

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Van Dyke Parks – “Arrangements Volume 1” (2011)

October 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles, Van Dyke Parks)

This is actually not a Van Dyke Parks album, per se. It’s really a “various artists” compilation featuring Parks’ brilliant arrangements and orchestrations.
This review comes from the Pitchfork Media website, by Jayson Greene, Sept. 22, 2011…

In 2008, I had the opportunity to briefly interview Van Dyke Parks. It wasn’t long after his collaboration with Joanna Newsom on Ys. brought him some fresh headlines, but I mostly asked about his long, itinerant career as arranger for three decades of rock musicians, from Brian Wilson and the Byrds to Rufus Wainwright and Frank Black. After amiably answering my questions, he signed off, semi-sardonically, with “Thank you, Jayson, for celebrating a position that perhaps serves best in its anonymity.”

The remark seemed half self-deprecating jab, half mission statement: Parks has a career-long acquaintance with anonymity. His most well-known association is with a record that, for thirty-odd years, was famous for never coming out. His solo records, starting with 1968’s confounding Harry Nilsson-meets-Charles Ives opus Song Cycle, are subjects of fervent cult adoration but known to few. His arranging work, meanwhile, has put an inimitable stamp on American pop, though the vast majority of music fans have no idea when they are listening to his work. He is the quintessential liner-notes hero, in other words, which makes the overview of Arrangements Volume 1, on his own label Bananastan, that much more gratifying. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Beach Boys – “The Smile Sessions Box Set” (Promo – 2011)

September 2, 2011 at 2:12 pm (Music, The Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks)

An advertisement for the long, long, long-awaited release (as a box set and as a 2-CD distillation) of The Beach Boys’ fabled, brilliant unreleased 1967 masterpiece.

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Van Dyke Parks – “Song Cycle” (1968)

November 20, 2008 at 9:08 am (Reviews & Articles, Van Dyke Parks)

Jim Miller wrote this review for Rolling Stone (issue #6), Feb. 24, 1968. Van Dyke had recently gone off on his own, after working on the then-aborted Smile album with Brian Wilson. Song Cycle got great reviews but was a poor seller for Warner Bros. – I believe one of their worst selling albums of all time, if I’m not mistaken…


Rock music is finally becoming composed music, growing from Phil Spector and Burt Bacharach. Bacharach contributed a purely popular legacy while Spector with Jack Nitzsche remained in the rock mainstream; out of them grew the Beach Boys, with Pet Sounds remaining the greatest romantic statement in rock writing. The Beatles have never essentially participated in this field, theirs being ad hoc construction of sound, a field the Mothers have invaded, as well as remaining to rock what Kurt Weill was to the musical theater. Meanwhile Motown has always canned arrangements in metrically divided temporal space even more sophisticated than Spector; yet until now only the Mothers have broken away from song structure, the now being Van Dyke Parks, co-author of the last Beach Boy record of merit (“Heroes and Villains”), and now in charge of Song Cycle.
Van Dyke Parks may come to be considered the Gertrude Stein of the new pop music, for unlike the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, his is not mass circulation music, in fact it approaches being an inaccessible lattice work of structured sound, which in itself is a major contribution to formalism in rock. In “The All-Golden” the possibility of sound as music within in the framework of form (and not à la Milton Babbit) comes through very clearly in several seconds of a train whistle that only slowly manifests itself as the train whistle it is; the record is full of such musical about-faces (such as the variations on “Donovan’s Colours”), from tack piano to balalaika to bomb (the possibility explored with the suggestive silence between “The All Golden” and “Van Dyke Parks”). Parks is a romantic in many ways, but his structure is strangely open, progressing across space much as George Shearing’s conceptions for guitar, vibes and piano.
Parks can’t really sing (not like Brian), so his voice is transfigured into taped mutations, becoming an integral part of his lush/noise compositional structure. Compared to an earlier, quite pretentious try at composed rock (Chad and Jeremy’s “Progress Suite”), Song Cycle presents us with the work of a creative genius. The album is hardly perfect, but familiarity breeds awe a what, for a first album, has been accomplished. If the Beatles pull themselves together, this may be their next stop in the breakaway from song form variations on a theme—significantly though, Van Dyke Parks is there first. Listening to Song Cycle may not bring love but it most certainly will bring music liberation.

Jim Miller

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Van Dyke Parks – “Cabin Essence” (1966)

September 11, 2008 at 4:18 pm (Poetry & Literature, The Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks)

Light the lamp and fire mellow,
Cabin essence timely hello,
Welcomes the time for a change

Lost and found, you still remain there
You’ll find a meadow filled with grain there
I’ll give you a home on the range

Who ran the iron horse?

I want to watch you windblown facing
Waves of wheat for your embracing
Folks sing a song of the grange

Nestle in a kiss below there
The constellations ebb and flow there
And witness our home on the range

Who ran the iron horse?
(Truck driving man do what you can)
Who ran the iron horse?
(High-tail your load off the road)
Who ran the iron horse?
(Out of night-life-it’s a gas man)
Who ran the iron horse?
(I don’t believe I gotta grieve)
Who ran the iron horse?
(In and out of luck)
Who ran the iron horse?
(With a buck and a booth)
Who ran the iron horse?
(Catchin’ on to the truth)
Who ran the iron horse?
(In the vast past, the last gasp)
Who ran the iron horse?
(In the land, in the dust, trust that you must)
Who ran the iron horse?
(Catch as catch can)

Have you seen the grand coolie workin’ on the railroad?

Over and over,
The crow cries uncover the cornfield
Over and over,
The thresher and hover the wheat field.

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Van Dyke Parks – “Heroes and Villians” (1966)

September 10, 2008 at 10:00 pm (Poetry & Literature, The Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks)

I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city,
I’ve been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time
Fell in love years ago with an innocent girl,
From the Spanish and Indian home of the heroes and villains.

Once at night, Catillian squared the fight,
And she was right in the rain of the bullets that eventually brought her
But she’s still dancing in the night, unafraid,
Of what a dude’ll do in a town full of heroes and villains

Heroes and villains, just see what you’ve done
Heroes and villains, just see what you’ve done

Stand or fall, I know there shall be peace in the valley,
And it’s all an affair of my life with the heroes and villains

In the cantina, margaritas keep the spirit high
There I watched her, she spun around and wound in the warmth,
Her body fanned the flame of the dance
Dance, Margarita, don’t you know that I’m in love with you
You’re under arrest!

My children were raised, you know they suddenly rise
They started slow, long ago, head-to-toe, healthy, wealthy, and often wise
At three-score and five, I’m very much alive
I’ve still got the jive to survive with the heroes and villains.

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Van Dyke Parks – “Palm Desert” (1968)

September 10, 2008 at 9:47 pm (Poetry & Literature, Van Dyke Parks)

By Palm Desert
to market to buy
Tenderfoot up to date
palms of the real estate

By Palm Desert
springs often run dry
I came west unto Hollywood,
never-never land

Juxtaposed to B.B.D. and O.
Beyond San Fernando
on hillside manors
on the banks of toxicity
those below and those above the same

Dreams are still born
in Hollywood I don’t understand
Just suppose the youngster knows
he’s had a good deal of fortune
and up through the babble
on the fair banks complicity,
buy your leave or stay beyond the game

Palm Desert
not fade away
Palm Desert
I wish I could stay
Palm Desert
sages abound

So head your head
to the ground round

Meanwhile in the wild west
of Hollywood age is losing hold
Inasmuch as you are touched
to have withstood
by the very old search
for the truth within
the bounds of toxicity
Left unsung
so I have strung the frame.

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Van Dyke Parks – “Wonderful” (1966)

September 9, 2008 at 10:00 pm (Poetry & Literature, The Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks)

She belongs there, left with her liberty
Never known as a non-believer
She laughs and stays in the

She knew how to gather the forest when
God reached softly and moved her body
One golden locket quite young
And loving her mother and father

Farther down the path was a mystery
Through the recess the chalk and numbers
A boy bumped into her

She’ll return in love with her liberty
Never known as a non-believer
She’ll smile and thank God
For one wonderful.

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Van Dyke Parks – “The Attic” (1968)

September 9, 2008 at 9:41 pm (Poetry & Literature, Van Dyke Parks)

I was there upon
a four poster there
Mind touseled
I came to bear
some thoughts from the past
amid a dash of influenza

And then I came to see in baggage
the memories of truncated souvenirs
The war years

High moon I said
high moon lighted
high moon eye
to my moon

Far beyond the blue mist
enveloped lawn
the blanketed night comes on
The champagne is dead and gone
The forest around sensitive sound forest primeval
Through the panes cloud buttermilk
war remains and twisted cross
war refrains lunatic so

high moon I said
high moon lighted
high moon eye
to my moon

Your age will most probably
carry away the letters enveloped in carrion
Vague unpleasantries of the war
May your son’s progenitorship
of the state haphazardly help him to carry on
God send your son safe home to you

High Moon
You’re eye
to my moon.

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