Van Dyke Parks - Discover America (1970)


Dad seems to have rediscovered the work of prolific yet enigmatic songwriter Van Dyke Parks recently. Parks, who is now 70 years young, will actually release his first proper solo album in 24 years this month. 

That new record is titled Song Cycled, an allusion to his debut solo album Song Cycle  which I reviewed last year. Song Cycle is often referred to as a masterpiece – it’s folksy and tuneful, but abstract enough to let you know that there’s a whole lot more going on than just a guy making a record. For Van Dyke Parks, music is an intellectual process.

That can be off-putting for some. We all love a good head-scratcher, but nobody want to see Captain Beefheart play the Super Bowl halftime show. Actually, that sounds kind of awesome...

I have to admit – Song Cycle did seem a bit too heady for me at times. Parks clearly has a vast knowledge of the history of music, but is also able to distill it with his own very specific and singular vision. This sometimes felt a little heavy-handed.

So it took me a while to move on to Parks’ second album, Discover America. With such a grandiose title and my Song Cycle experience still fresh in my head, I figured I’d be in for a album that would be, quite frankly, exhausting.

Boy was I wrong.

Discover America may be as intellectual a pursuit as Song Cycle, but it doesn’t FEEL like it. Perhaps it’s the easy-going feel of the Trinidad-ian calypso music he integrates into the album, or that his references to Bing Crosby, Jack Palance, and the Mills Brothers aren’t lost on me. Whatever it is, I liked Discover America upon first listen.

And so will you. It's catchy, intelligent, and WAY ahead of its time. I could have told you that this song was from brooklyn art-house band Dirty Projectors, and you might have believed me. 

[ mp3 ]: Van Dyke Parks – Occa Pella

And, as a sucker for strings, the short but beautifully orchestrated "The Four Mills Brothers" is a joy.

[ mp3 ]: Van Dyke Parks – The Four Mills Brothers

And there's plenty of whimsy (and steel drum !) in this one:

[ mp3 ]: Van Dyke Parks – Be Careful

And this one's just awesome:

[ mp3 ]: Van Dyke Parks - FDR in Trinidad

Overall, this album is a real stunner. I can't suggest it highly enough.


5 / 5 DADS

5 / 5 SONS


Van Dyke Parks - Song Cycle (1968)

“What ever happened to Van Dyke Parks?”

While that sounds like a great title for a documentary or biopic about the enigmatic Van Dyke Parks, it’s actually what my dad keeps asking me every time I see him.

You see, my dad has been enjoying this little project of mine because it’s getting him to dig back into some of the more obscure sections of his record collection. And Van Dyke Parks was one of his favorite pulls - a highly respected artist and producer, someone who continues to influence music to this day, and most importantly - someone I had only vaguely heard of.

If you do a Van Dyke Wiki, you’ll see that, in fact, a lot has happened to Van Dyke Parks. He's music’s equivalent to the Dos Equis guy – quite possibly the most interesting man in the world. Born in the South, he started as a child actor, starring in some TV shows and a Grace Kelly film. Then, music took over, and by the age of 21, he had a contract with MGM. From there, a friendship with Brian Wilson lead to him being heavily involved in the masterpiece, Smile, followed by his own solo debut – Song Cycle – in 1968.

Parks dropped five solo albums from ’67 to ’89, but just as importantly, established himself as a producer, a role he still plays today. Parks has collaborated with Phil Ochs, U2, Randy Newman, Nilsson, Bonnie Raitt, Dangermouse, The Thrills, Joanna Newsome, Toad the Wet Sprocket – he’s even worked very closely with Silverchair. Yes, that SILVERCHAIR

Song Cycle was his 1968 debut. Famous for its expensive production, the album reportedly took three years to sell enough copies to pay for its original studio costs. So it wasn't a hit, per se, but over the years this record has become known as one of those "influential" works. (There's a "331/3" written about it, so you know it's important.) 

The reason I find this album worthy of posting about right now is because this album seems to 'take place' in Southern California, and I recently travelled out to Los Angeles for work. SoCal weaves itself into this song cycle, lending a sense of folksy Americana into the songs that comes off genuine instead of ironic. Parks sings about Vine Street, Siverlake, and Laurel Canyon, and as I drive around 

I'm actually writing this from Los Angeles, having moved out here for work. And this album is all about SoCal - songs about Vine Street, Silverlake, and Laurel Canyon give me a sense that these places (so new to me!) actually have a long, rich history of people discovering them. The Alabamian protagonist of "The All Golden" comes to LA and keeps an apartment in Silverlake, probably back before it was cool.

[ mp3 ]
: Van Dyke Park - The All Golden

And "Laurel Canyon Blvd.," (which I've driven down, by the way!) contains some pretty solid violin, which always gets me.

[ mp3 ]: Van Dyke Parks - Laurel Canyon Bvld.

Sure, I may be a stone's throw away from Laurel Canyon, with the western sun setting at my back, the Spanish telecast of the Dodgers game playing softly in the background. It's all very new to me. But if I put this record on and close my eyes, I'm back in my dad's TV room, and I swear I can see him smiling out of the corner of my eye. It's almost like being home.

- N.W.

Read Pitchfork's review of the reissue HERE.