In his career, Van Dyke Parks has collaborated with Brian Wilson on the aborted SMiLE sessions, worked with Frank Zappa, and arranged for everyone from Silverchair to Joanna Newsom. Parks is one of few rightfully considered a living legend. That said, he remains one of those fringe-dwelling geniuses that most music fans couldn’t pick out of a crowd, while generations of musicians praise him for his singular blend of classical arrangements, old-school Americana, and quirky pop sensibilities. Now, 45 years after his debut album Song Cycle, Parks playfully looks back at his career with Songs Cycled, parts of the LP reworking previously released material and the rest epitomizing his insular, eccentric style.
The arrangements on Songs Cycled are ornate, even persnickety, layers of everything from strings and woodwinds to steel drum and ukulele populating Parks’ dollhouse depictions of the world’s dangers. Cataclysmic piano resonates under the fears and bravado of post-9/11 New York on “Wall Street”, something akin to Randy Newman (a friend of Parks) and Leonard Bernstein drinking together in a smoky bar. “Missin Mississippi” talks about when “Katrina hit 155” and how “somehow layin’ low you might survive,” though you’d never know it from the honey-toned accordion, skipping percussion, and Parks’ nasal delivery.
“The All Golden” is a revision of a track from Song Cycle, the songwriter’s voice considerably greyed, the orchestral bounce and sharp delivery simmered down to piano and legato croon. “Hold Back Time” (originally found on the Brian Wilson collaborative album Orange Crate Art) revels in its romantic warmth.
For what has been warned as possibly the last album of his career, Songs Cycled collects the real Van Dyke Parks in all of his impish brilliance. The clarinet-fiddle swing of “Sassafrass” shows a reverence for everything old-fashioned and goofy, but leaves plenty of room for cheeky jokes about the title woman’s pull over the narrator. The giddily self-aware idealism of “Dreaming of Paris” hits that same duality, the masterful arrangement a breathtaking feat without factoring in the extra winking layer. Whatever Parks might work on in the future, Songs Cycled is the perfect reminder of his deserved status for those that had been content to let him sit on the fringe.
Essential Tracks: “Hold Back Time”, “Dreaming of Paris”, and “Wall Street”.