Van Dyke Parks - Song Cycle (1968)

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“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


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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.




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