Van Dyke Parks - Song Cycle, Discover America, Clang of the Yankee Reaper
This is one crazed, crazy vision, alright. Those of us (most of us, surely) who know the reputation rather than the music may well have spent enough time procrastinating about getting to know the work of Van Dyke Parks to allow us to actually build a deep understanding and familiarity. If that’s the case, here’s a chance, via a set of re-issues of the first three works to right that wrong. Even if you do know the canon, and you're a long term admirer rather than just respectfully aware, Parks’ defiantly avant-garde approach must still present a challenge. Often densely arranged, orchestrated to almost unwieldy levels, this is music of the most rarified kind. By presenting the popular song in such a heightened, uniquely catholic fashion (you’ll find folk, jazz and classical spun up within the dramatics of the music hall), Parks put himself forward as the ultimate pop sophisticate.
After the 1967 release of the debut Song Cycle, it would be five years before the composer released a follow-up. Discover America and 1975’s The Clang of the Yankee Reaper took on ever more esoteric influences with trips to Jamaica levering in a Caribbean lilt to the already bursting-at-the-seams template. Purists might point to the debut as the must-have but there’s a warmth and approachability to …Yankee Reaper that might just make it a more feasible starting point for the mildly curious.
It’s harsh to suggest that that the one weak spot in Parks’ enterprise and ambition is the actual presentation but his own voice, reedy and thin, does, on occasion, bring his fancies back to earth. No surprise, then, that, now approaching 70, he continues to collaborate with others as he did most famously with Brian Wilson on the legendary lost Smile album, and most recently with the clued-up and cuckoo likes of Joanna Newsom and Rufus Wainwright. Birds of a feather.