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Discover America
Van Dyke Parks

Warner Bros. BS 2589
Released: 1972

Van Dyke ParksVan Dyke Parks, surely one of the most inventive musical minds in the business, is definitely not for everybody. His first album Song Cycle came out in 1968 and even aficionados are still hard at work trying to figure it out: both the lyrics and melodic/harmonic styles almost defy description, and on Discover America they are nearly as intricate. Parks uses Caribbean rhythms, '30 lyrics, modern pop, rhythm and blues and atonal classical techniques blended into a kind of composite musical picture of the United States for his sixteen-song 1972 opus; and in many places it's impossible to crack right away. Rampant counterpoint, counter-rhythms, odd harmonic progressions, non-resolving chords and obscure lyrics all serve to produce an intriguing, but frustrating, musical meld. When the numbers are more structured, one is in a better position to see just what kind of improvements Parks can make -- the first three songs on the second side form the most coherent unit -- and by their mere accessibility, they invite analysis.

Van Dyke Parks - Discover America
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"Occapella" is an Allen Toussaint song about the virtues of musical expression which is boosted primarly by some cleverly arranged female vocals, and "Sailin' Shoes" is Lowell George's opus on similar themes which Parks stretches, bends, augments and interprets through the use of lilting strings climbing into space, some particularly thumpy drumming, celestial vocals, unexpected pauses, hotcha steelband tapping and witty effects (when the lyrics mention laughing, we hear just that in the distance). The third part of the triptych is another Toussaint New Orleans jumper, "Riverboat," which is almost pure rhythmic response, swirling and churning with West Indian funk.

Other highlights of Side Two include "Your Own Comes First," a political ditty ("Jamaicans for Jamaicans/Even Barbados take the same route") and the absolutely bonkers "G-Man Hoover," which sounds like a cross between the Bonzo Dog Band, "Pajama Game" and Mozart. As creepy as "G-Man Hoover" is, it can't compare to the whole experience of the first side of Discover America, which is a surrealistic caravan sprinkled with American lore, cheers for some singing favorites of the past and hymns to our 32nd President. It must be heard.

Parks once did a commercial for Datsun which involved atonal use of a Moog synthesizer, which is a fairly good indication of how he feels about combining the avant-garde with the commercially viable. I doubt Discover America well sell many more copies than Song Cycle did, but anyone who has the inclination (and endurance) to dip into either will be rewarded amply for his pains. This means you!

- Mark Leviton, Words & Music, 9/72.

Bonus Reviews!

If record-company executives are all hard-hearted money-grubbers, then how come Van Dyke Parks, who never sells any records, is so eminently successful in the record business? After his Song Cycle drew enormous critical praise and sold approximately fourteen copies, Parks brought out Esso Trinidad Steelband, and then took (for a short period) a "development" job with Warner Brothers. Parting with WB, he said what passes in Van Dyke for unkind words about some Warner's executives (that is, a patient man with enough time and a good dictionary could determine that some of the allegations were of a pejorative nature). The executives, in turn, said Van Dyke had done a fine job, etc., etc., and would continue to be a great asset to the company, etc., etc. Nobody ought to mess with a genius, but then nobody can be sure when a genius is just messing around and when he's really doing something.

This album is a case in point. Steel-band music again seems to be its main ingredient along with calypso-nostalgia and Trinidad lore. It will leave most wondering what Parks hears in steel-band music that escapes us. It is probably great fun to play in a steel-band -- and Parks probably does love Trinidad, as he says -- but a little bit of steel-band music goes a long way when I'm in the audience. The songs here are about as lazy and lackadaisical as the instrumentation. Parks says in some brief notes that all the songs (which are by such people as The Mighty Sparrow, Wilmouth Houdini, Buevedo, Lord Kitchner, and John Philip Sousa) have been recorded before -- and although I know "FDR in Trinidad" has, I can't help wondering where, besides in Parks' own head, "Jack Palance" has ever appeared before. (That song, incidentally, has lyrics that seem to have not the faintest connection with Mr. Palance.) Anyway, Parks says that he will see that all songwriters, or their estates, are paid royalties, thus reversing a trend.

It's all mildly interesting the first or second time around, but either so far ahead of its time or so far out in left field that it doesn't light up any scoreboards. Parks again seems safe from the taint of commercialism, since, in addition to all those estates that will be paid royalties, he will presumably pay the steel band and the thirty-eight other musicians he used. There wouldn't be any money left over if the album sold a million copies. In that unlikely event, I'm sure Parks could think of something else to keep his balance sheet in the red.

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 1/73.

Parks turns to the music of Trinidad here, especially as it was heard in the 40s, which means tributes to "Bing Crosby" and "The Four Mills Bros.," not to mention "G-Man Hoover" and "FDR in Trinidad," played on steel drums and other indigenous instruments. A charming, idiosyncratic genre exercise. * * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

On his sophomore effort, Discover America, Parks finds America... in the Caribbean. The album boasts lovely, languid renditions of great songs such as Little Feat's "Sailin' Shoes." * * *

- Simon Glickman, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

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