Van Dyke Parks
Since his debut with the celebrated 1968 album Song Cycle, Van Dyke Parks continues to serve as America’s musical historian, a pop/folk singer-songwriter with eclectic, exquisite taste.
His new CD, Moonlighting, was recorded in 1996 at Los Angeles’ legendary folk music venue Ash Grove, and reflects the wide-ranging scope of Parks’ talent in a shimmering, golden orchestral setting.
The 13 tracks here could serve as a prelude to getting to know Parks’ music. The instrumental “Jump!,” a rumination on the story cycles of Joel Chandler Harris, appears here along with a vocal track, “Hominy Grove,” from the same 1984 concept album. Next is “Orange Crate Art,” a pop track co-written by Parks and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in 1994.
Parks continues with an apt description of the mud-and-fish-in-the-living-room storms of Los Angeles, “Wings of a Dove,” which resonates quite nicely in these times of El Niño.
Parks’ humor comes across well in this live setting, as he pegs Dr. Kevorkian as a coward for not coming to assist musicians in extremis as promised. Then he prompts an audience member to remember the old maxim (probably left over from wartime) “Think Yiddish, speak British.”
When he plays a beautiful Gottschalk composition, “Night in the Tropics,” the orchestra and Parks’ choice pop musicians, such as bassist Leland Sklar, truly come into their own. Humor and history intersect without seams on “F.D.R. in Trinidad.” “Make the whole stock exchange your own, If need be occupy a throne,” Parks quotes from a Robert Frost poem, but make sure you value friendships. This poem jibes with his habit of keeping up with old friends like folk musician Steve Young, about whom Parks wrote the 1968 composition “The All Golden,” a reverent yet funny tribute, containing throwaway lines such as “Off the record, he is hungry.” Young also opened for Parks on this stand at the Ash Grove.
Parks’ concern for the environment shows up here on tracks such as “Cowboy,” from his 1989 album Tokyo Rose, which deals with the deforestation of Hawaii to make way for ranching interests. “I’m a tree-hugger,” Parks confesses between tunes. He recalls meeting folk artist John Hartford in the mountains of North Carolina and the sweet, fresh water they drank there in introducing Hartford’s “Delta Queen Waltz.” Next comes what Parks calls “an exalted paean” to one of our favorite barnyard creatures, “C-H-I-C-K-E-N,” a singalong by Parks which has been covered by Uncle Dave Macon and the Red Clay Minstrels, among others. Another artist Parks pays tribute to is Lowell George, late, lamented founder of Little Feat, whose song “Sailin’ Shoes” appears here.
Busy as he is with his `day job’ composing music for innumerable film and television projects, this release allowed Parks a night off. Besides, it’s a singular opportunity to hold forth on a variety of musical, historical and personal topics. And for a true original such as Van Dyke Parks, that’s too good to pass up.