Tuesday, September 21, 2010
If There Were Any Gods That Ever Lived There, I Knew Them Not: Van Dyke Parks- Discover America (1973)
A while back, after having heard nearly all the Harry Nilsson there is to hear, I finally checked out Van Dyke Parks, another dizzyingly cerebral American music historian and pop scientist. Why it took me so long to get around to hearing his seminal work, Song Cycle, is a puzzler, but oversights do occur in even the most voracious among us. I found him to be a clear peer to my main man Mr. Nilsson, not just because they both do a terrific rendition of Randy Newman's "Vine St.", but because they both possess and exhibit an insanely comprehensive knowledge of virtually all forms of 20th century popular music, a quick wit, an entertainer's prankish twinkle, the ruthless specificity of genius, and an experimental and thorough approach in the studio.
One thing that separates them is the voice: Nilsson has the voice of a fucking angel fallen to earth, with the golden phrasing and interpretive ability of a god, whereas Parks... Parks is just usin' what God gave him. Which is to say, a twee, nasal tenor that always sounds like a vague impression of someone, draped in intellectual irony. For this reason, I have never fully welcomed Song Cycle into my heart, although I have to say, you really ought to hear it. It's a piece of work, to be sure-- almost certainly a masterpiece-- and the aforementioned Newman cover is only one of the highlights.
Discover America, on the other hand, is an absolutely unequivocal masterpiece. As the allmusic review says: Van Dyke Parks is one of a handful of artists possessing a purity of vision that graces every project he is involved with. Very few could pull off an album titled Discover America -- with all the themes and motifs befitting such a moniker -- done entirely in the style of the Caribbean, most specifically Trinidad circa the 1940s. The songs weave together in a sonic tapestry that connects the untiring Yankee spirit of ingenuity with the opulence and romanticism of the islands. While tomes could easily be devoted to dissecting the album's multiple layers of meaning, to call it an eclectic masterpiece of multicultural Americana might be a start. While the contents of the album as a whole are tropical in flavor, there are numerous examples of Parks' trademark swaddling arrangements and unique perspectives -- such as odes to his favorite vocalists ("Bing Crosby" and the marvelous "The Four Mills Brothers"). Just as he had done with the "Bicycle Rider" suite on Brian Wilson's Smile, Parks has the uncanny ability to incorporate various active musical story lines at once.
It's so amazing. While I can't comment, yet, on the subtextual and symbolic meaning or multi-functioning juxtapositions (both musical, referential, and lyrical, not to mention the historical/political aspect), I can say this, once again with vigor: It is so delightful, musically. Thoroughly listenable and thrillingly stimulating, all the while just as pleasant as a peach tree. Bending his barely-there voice to gently mimic or tender homage to Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, the Calypso singers, and perhaps Dean Martin (for a brief-but-brilliant flash at the end of the stupendous "Occapella"), he also seems to come at singing from a more straightforward and confident perspective, sounding vocally very strong and arresting.
The arrangements are executed in a fascinating, wonderful way, and the laid-back but deceptively complex songs keep the brain just a-pulsing for the album's entire runtime. This, friends, is what I was looking for when I needed a new plug for the Nilsson-shaped hole in my soul, but it's also something else entirely. Something significant.
DISCOVER AMERICA, CHILDREN (320)
PS. If you've never heard the Mills Brothers stunning vocal stylings, you should. Next post, perhaps.