3 stars (out of 4)
Van Dyke Parks has carved a rich, if largely underappreciated, seam in pop culture the last five decades. A lyricist with a bent for poetic wordplay (most famously associated with the Beach Boys’ aborted “Smile” album sessions); a composer steeped in classical music, Tin Pan Alley and various strands of pre-rock Americana; and a gifted arranger and producer who has worked with everyone from Frank Zappa to Joanna Newsome, Parks is revered by a devoted following of in-the-know musicians and fans.
“Songs Cycled” (Bella Union), his first studio album since 1995, collects a series of singles from the last few years. The album title nods toward Parks’ audacious 1968 debut, “Song Cycle,” which weaved together centuries of music while resolutely avoiding flower-power era clichés. It was acclaimed by critics but stiffed commercially, prompting Parks’ label to run ads that claimed it "lost $35,509 on 'the album of the year'." Ever since, Parks has pursued a singular path on the margins of the mainstream.
“Songs Cycled” impresses as a sonic statement, a swirl of beautiful snapshots from around the world: the folk song “Wedding in Madagascar” lustrously rearranged for string band and horns, the accordion-driven balladry of “Dreaming of Paris,” the Caribbean steel-drum jangle of “Aquarium,” the spiritual-as-waltz reinvention of “Amazing Graces.” Parks knows how to layer sound, favoring acoustic instruments and an orchestral sweep that largely resists the small-combo warfare of rock ‘n’ roll, electronic texture, hip-hop rhythm, or just about any musical form that has come into existence the last 50 years.
But there’s nothing musty about his arrangements, a sharp melding of pop melody and new-classical harmonics. Parks also brings a wry and pointed flair for political and social commentary. He’s a genial singer, even as he describes a tragic oil spill in “Black Gold,” turns into a street reporter amid the carnage of 9-11 in “Wall Street,” and gazes at both sides of the economic chasm on “Money is King.” At 70, Parks remains a feisty iconoclast.
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