Art- Pop and modern recording have been intertwined sciences since their conception. The studio as an instrument itself. In particular, the unique arrangements, sonorities, and textures it is capable of making. It’s the result of a dialogue between many artists and technicians that took the better part of the last century to develop.
There are countless encounters in the pursuit of this dialogue, waiting in record bins and internet forums. Great lost sentences that might put the whole conversation into perspective. That’s where I found Discover America last summer, and when I gave it my first spin I knew I was holding something I didn’t fully understand. A unique and distilled conception of that idea. A lost transmission.
What I was holding was the result of a rather complicated web of events; it was a conclusion of some aspect of that great dialogue and the beginning of another. In its way Discover America is a Ulysses in sound, standing between Pepper and Trout Mask Replica, yet still distantly removed from either.
Parks signed to MGM less than a year after completing his conservatory education in music. He spent that formative time releasing singles and gaining arrangement and writing credits on a score of minor hits (including ‘The Bare Necessities’). We’re lucky to have these wonderfully collected on the recent Arrangements, Vol. 1 compilation released on his own Bananastan imprint. It was during this time that he and Brian Wilson became acquainted. This is where two rather complicated stories collide. Brian Wilson, post-Pet Sounds, chart conqueror and Van Dyke Parks, pop wunderkind, team up to create a musical legend. SMiLE, the album that never was.
SMiLE, widely bootlegged and recently officially released, was a watershed of ideas coming to fruition toward the end of the 1960’s, and it’s an album of such melodic grace and avant- complexity it makes one stop and think “Oh, good point, why weren’t Revolution 9 and Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da the same song?” and deserves more credit that it can receive here. But with it Brian Wilson and his lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, had created a dense, gleefully satirical, and sophisticated album lush with technical perfection and emotional honesty. They may have been better off had they not.
Among the other Beach Boys, most prominently Mike Love, Park’s Ivy League whimsy was a serious point of contention and a road block on the way to writing another ‘I Get Around’. Parks was dropped from the sessions like a tab of acid and the album was never completed.While Brian Wilson retreated into bed SMiLE catapulted Van Dyke Parks from a talented arranger and songwriter to a pop music force, or at least it should have.
Van Dyke Parks received quite an honor in 1967 when Warner Brothers financed his creation of one of the most expensive albums in their history- his debut Song Cycle. And Warner Brothers received quite the let down when they, almost literally, couldn’t give it away. They even went out of their way to place advertisements stating that the album wasn’t selling and would probably go over your head. Rolling Stone, still learning to crawl, consistently faulted Parks for his overly academic and obtuse lyrical content and song structure. Parks, a well-educated and frustrating man, often confounded his audience with abstract juxtapositions. He often spoke riddles in his interviews, which only lends a hand to his detractors. (Looking back on it, the SMiLE outtake ‘He Gives Speeches’ sums up fairly well what Parks’ may have been thinking to himself at this later point in time.)
It was a touchy time for Parks. He resigned his position at Warner Brothers and began to produce and arrange for novelty acts and singles. He mentioned in a 1970 interview for Rolling Stone that what he wanted to do next was travel America. It would become his obsession and America is better for it.
Discover America, as Lindsay Planer of AMG so succinctly understated it: “is a pop music history lesson that is without question one of the lost classics of the early ’70s”. Time has shown he was correct in stating: “[it was] easily… several decades ahead of its time”.
Van Dyke Parks’ second album, released in August of 1972 some 5 years after Song Cycle, is something else entirely. Where Song Cycle was an intricate orchestral chamber pop record, filled with Parks’ brand of lyricism and melodic innovation, Discover America is a different animal. Many of the songs are public-domain calypso tunes from Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the record is filled with selections reminiscent of the Great American Songbook.
It is Parks’ keen eye for composition and structure that lend a hand in elucidating what would otherwise be a completely esoteric point. The Great American Songbook and Calypso really aren’t that different. In fact, rhythm aside, they are pretty much the same.
However, Parks’ stamp is firmly placed throughout them. They are not covers or versions of the songs; they are re-inventions through Parks’ own musical vision. Each beat falls perfectly in its place, yet somehow its ‘place’ is wherever Parks’ tells it to be (for an example skip straight to his reworking of the Allen Toussaint classic ‘Occapella’).
The album can be played over and over again as sort of an endless loop with the beginning and the end of the record creating an oddly experimental yet soothing mood. It isn’t until ‘Bing Crosby’, a terrific song in honor of the great vocalist and the third track on the album, that Parks’ arrangement and voice can be heard.
Throughout the record Parks’ throws hooks from Tin Pan Alley tunes into the arrangements yet expresses them using his adapted calypso format. “Music is the place, but it’s hell to keep up the pace with the bass” ends one song (‘Steelband Music’) and the following track (album highlight ‘The Four Mill’s Brothers’) beginnings with double bass and cello in a stomp. Soon enough you’re caught in the picnic whistle of a song that the sardonic lullaby of ‘Be Careful’ turns into in Parks’ hands. As you’re lost in the steel drum and string combination that lies at the heart of this record you’re abruptly nudged by the rhythmic pulse of the great rocksteady/ska hit ‘John Jones’ that Parks’ turns into the aural equivalent of having a cigar on a boat.
That’s the joy of this set of songs, abrupt shifts into only slight variations of the rather unique sound. Parks could walk a tightrope in that studio, and using his nimble grace to open up the ears of his listeners. Inviting them to Discover America.
Parks’ talent is hiding danger in whimsy and his skill has always laid in the details. In the grooves of Discover America you can hear both in an amazingly repeatable fashion.