Van Dyke Parks has essentially been making the same album since 1968, and fortunately for his fans, that album is a great one. Parks’ fascination with Tin Pan Alley sounds and Depression-Era songwriting has infused his work since the mid-1960s, resulting in albums that sound like original cast recordings from musicals that don’t exist.
Over the last two years, Parks self-released a series of six 7” singles on his own label. His brand new album, Songs Cycled compiles all of the singles. While the sticker on the outside of the album claims that Songs Cycled is his first “proper solo” album in 24 years, it’s all a matter of record company promotional semantics since his last album of all-new original material was Orange Crate Art, a collaboration with Brian Wilson that was released in 1995.
The album’s title references Parks’ debut album for Warner Bros back in 1968 called Song Cycle, and many of the musical themes in his debut album are revisited here. In the promotional interviews for the new album, Parks has said that due to the high costs associated with releasing records today; this could well be his last album. If that is indeed the case, the music contained within Songs Cycled brings his storied career full circle.
Parks is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, and especially for his lyrical contributions to their ill-fated Smile project. He has also worked with such notable performers as Phil Ochs, The Byrds, Little Feat, Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention, Three Dog Night, Tim Buckley, Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, Ringo Starr, Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Victoria Williams, Joanna Newsom, U2, Grizzly Bear, Silverchair and Rufus Wainwright.
Part of his “Zelig-like” charm comes down to being at the right place at the right time. For instance, Parks sessioned on The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension album, after which David Crosby asked him to join the band. He was also later offered membership in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, however, he declined both offers.
When Parks first met Brian Wilson, he was asked to write new lyrics to “Good Vibrations” because Wilson was dissatisfied with Tony Asher’s lyrics. Parks declined, stating that he didn’t’ think he could improve on Asher’s lyrics. However, it was Parks idea to have the cellos play the eighth notes in the track.
It was through his involvement with “Good Vibrations” that Wilson asked Parks to write lyrics for the Smile album that was recorded in 1966, but did not get a proper release until 2012. In preparation for the writing and recording of the album, Wilson purchased several thousand dollars’ worth of marijuana and hash for him and his friends (including Parks) to consume.
Parks worked on numerous sessions for Warner Bros. and Reprise Records artists throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In the mid-1960s, he pitched a song composed by his brother Carson to Frank Sinatra. Sinatra recorded the song with his daughter Nancy, resulting in the chart-topping single “Somethin’ Stupid.” Parks also directed, arranged, produced and composed soundtracks for a many theatrical films, TV commercials and television shows.
Today’s Song of the Day is one of two tracks on Songs Cycled that are re-recordings of previously written material from Parks’ other albums. “Aquarium” is an instrumental recording made with The Esso Trinidad Steel Band composed originally by the French classical composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The track originally appeared on the 1971 album Van Dyke Parks Presents The Esso Trinidad Steel Band which was produced by Van Dyke Parks.
The Esso Trinidad Steel Band had been performing with Liberace in Las Vegas when Van Dyke Parks heard them. According to Parks, “I saw them as enslaved in their relationship to Liberace; I thought it was a vulgarity. I wanted to save them from their trivialization.”
Of Songs Cycled Parks said, “I think it is safe to say that my work can be branded Americana, but I think it’s also safe to say it can be branded ‘anti-Americana’ and ‘an inconvenient truth’ as well.…There is very little ‘divergent music’ made in America. I go to ‘worldbeat’ to get out of the box. I think those influences show in my perspective.”
To that end, the album features several songs tied to historical events including “Wall Street” which was written in response to the September 11th attacks on the U.S., and “Money Is King” which deals with the post-9/11 corporate greed in America. The song “Dreaming Of Paris” deals with the American bombing of Baghdad and “Missin’ Missippi” was written about Hurricane Katrina.
The most overtly Broadway-esque track on the album is a cover of Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Sassafrass,” which Parks calls “outlaw chamber music,” and the album’s centerpiece, “The Parting Hand” comes from The Sacred Harp Society’s Hymnal of 1835. The track begins as a straight-up acapella hymn and is followed by a long, ornate orchestral coda.
Songs Cycled is everything you’d want from a Van Dyke Parks album, Copland-esque Americana, fussy orchestral arrangements and songs that bring you into another world…a world that today is only inhabited by Parks himself. At 70 years old, Parks keeps pushing the envelope forward and has worked in recent years with Silverchair, Joanna Newsome, Grizzly Bear and Skrillex.