Van Dyke Parks – Songs Cycled (2013)

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A little too mannered at times, Van Dyke Parks songs would fall flat on their ass were it not for his flair for musical mischief making. “Dreaming of Paris,” for instance, is the picture of genteel reverie until he announces that JFK has been shot, then the skies begin to purple with roiling portent. A stoic choir is suddenly surrounded by a sweetly romantic string section in “The Parting Hand,” and so on.

In this way, Song Cycled — due today (July 23, 2013) on Bella Union US — reclaims another corner of an often overlooked legacy that includes work on Brian Wilson’s lost classic SMiLE. Of course, just after that Beach Boys project initially stalled, Parks issued his own magnum opus of inward commentary, inside jokes and endlessly old-fashioned pop asides called Song Cycle. But after that, his solo career has been as shrouded in mystery as anything Wilson ever tried and failed at in the late 1960s. Parks’ most recent solo effort came nearly a quarter century ago, Tokyo Rose.

That’s a lot of ground to cover, and Parks does so by generously mixing in previously released singles, reimagined previous efforts and a few age-old favorites. That gives this set new perspective that more straight-forward anthologies like 2011’s Arrangements Vol. 1 can’t touch. Of course, both lack a certain cohesion, but Parks’ gift has been similarly mercurial in its unwillingness to be pinned down, anyway. This is, really, the perfect showcase for Parks’ endless fascination with left turns.

Of special interest will be a remake of the delicately gorgeous “Hold Back Time,” from his 1995 Wilson collaboration, Orange Crate Art. “The All Golden” goes all the way back to Parks’ 1968 debut; “Aquarium” to a 1971 recording. Hymns and traditional songs like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, “The Parting Hands” and the album-closing “Amazing Grace” only add to the emotionally resonant, valedictory feel of Songs Cycled.

Despite the varied nature of things — the boozy revelry of “Wedding in Madagascar,” the wine-dark ruminations of “Black Gold,” the angular recriminations of “Wall Street” — Parks’ voice, diaphanous and so filled with sad wonder, proves to be the perfect instrument. Whether that be in softening the blow when his words turn sharp or by perfectly conveying a sense of dreamy nostalgia, it often works as the only landmark in a glorious and ever-changing landscape of ideas, sounds, textures and moods.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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