Van Dyke Parks – Discover America: Round 37 – Tom’s Selection

The themes, assuming we have to adhere to them, comrades, are definitely getting more challenging. For our latest meeting we had to bring something that the others would find surprising (I suspect this was Graham’s attempt for the rest of us to join him in Marillion based shame). In the weeks following our last club night I have wrestled with this idea, as in, ‘How do the others perceive my musical leanings?’ Cue much heart wrenching psycho-analysis. You see, I have had an ever more overwhelming sense that my selections for record club up until now have been depressingly predictable. Even the less likely records have been predictable in their unpredictability. So, short of going to a second hand record shop and making some random selection I was more than a little stumped. In the end I opted for Discover America, probably a blindingly obvious choice for me to bring, but a music that is so unusual that until I bought it a couple of months ago, I had no idea existed. Surely that must be surprising?

I almost didn’t buy Discover America. Although I have been on the look out for some Van Dyke Parks on vinyl for most of my adult life, when it eventually turned up in The Drift record shop in Totnes, brand spanking new reissues of Discover America, Song Cycle and Clang of the Yankee Reaper, I was tempted to leave them on the shelf.

The reason? Until recently all I knew of Van Dyke Parks was that he released a few odd but revered records in the late 60s and early 70s and that he was closely involved in the Beach Boys’ Smile project. As a big fan of Pet Sounds (see Round 14) I had eagerly bought Brian Wilson’s Smile when it was released a few years ago. Hated it. When the true version saw the light of day in 2011 I was given it as a birthday present and was shocked to find it wasn’t much better. So my eagerness to check out some Van Dyke Parks had already cooled somewhat. Nevertheless, it seemed churlish to pass up the opportunity when it finally arose, so I asked the lady behind the desk in the shop which of Song Cycle or Discover America she would recommend in particular, to which she replied, ‘Neither. I don’t really get anything from Van Dyke Parks records. Do you?’ and she turned to her assistant who agreed wholeheartedly that VDP records were most definitely to be avoided. Whilst I admire the honesty of their answers, I can’t help but question their sales technique. Surely the idea of stocking a record is to sell it!?! Luckily for me, Mr Parks and The Drift, I stubbornly disregarded their advice and bought Discover America anyway, no doubt falling for the oldest sales trick in the book in the process.

Regardless, I have quickly grown to love Discover America. But that’s not to say that it wasn’t tricky at first. In his review of the first three VDP albums, Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene said, ‘If you’ve heard any of Van Dyke Parks‘ solo records in your life, your first reaction was likely some variant on “I don’t get it.” That’s okay, you weren’t supposed to.’ In fact, the only person I know who has unequivocally expressed a liking to Discover America first time through is my “notoriously hard to impress because she is ten” ten year old daughter, Tess. Maybe that’s because she is coming to it without the weight of expectation that decades of homogeny in modern music produces in us. You see, Discover America is an album of cover versions of 1940s calypso songs as played out in the mind of a 29 year old American composer. It’s different!

The album starts with Mighty Sparrow’s own recording of Jack Palance but from then on it’s all Parks’ own interpretations. And it’s clear a few listens in that this is a work of complete reverence for the material, Parks’ tongue is most definitely not in his cheek! It’s charming stuff and definitely not an album to section up into chunks – not many of these songs would make sense on a compilation of white American music of the last few decades. That said, current faves include the Toussaint compositions, Occapella and Riverboat, the bluesy vibraphones of John Jones and the lilting ‘Franco’ style Bing Crosby. But it’s the sort of album where the favourites chop and change and the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.  Whether Discover America constitutes a surprising choice or not remains to be seen, I’m just as interested to see if the DRC crew can see past the weight of popular opinion and join Tess in ‘getting it’ from the off.

Nick listened: Clearly I ignored the vague theme to “bring something surprising” (my records are all, bar new purchases, still packed ready for moving, so I’ve not got much choice for “surprising”!). But so did everyone else! Except Tom, who now has an exceptional track record of bringing records by artists I’ve been aware of for what seems like aeons but never got round to listening to. VDP is very much one of those – I knew he hung out with the Beach Boys and Byrds, scored other people’s records, and was generally a significant “figure” in that era of “classic” US pop/rock that certain print magazines have never got over, but I’ve never been curious enough to pick up a record. If I had, it would almost certainly have been Song Cycle, his debut, rather than this strange curio of a record. I have no idea how faithful VDP’s versions of these calypso songs are – I suspect his arrangements are considerably more ornate (orchestras not being that prevalent in the calypso I know!), but he does throw in steel drums and suchlike from time to time. It took me a few tracks to get a grip of what Discover America was doing, but by the second half I’d got into the vibe, and found myself really enjoying it. Would listen again.

Rob listened: Tom had played this to me a few weeks earlier when he was still in his period of bafflement with it. In my appreciation of music, or at least in the way I approach musical appreciation, I’m much closer to Tom’s children Tess and Kit than I am to the great man himself. I never feel the need to get underneath the skin of a record, unpick what makes it work, disassemble and reassemble it to learn how it fits together. I’d rather not know. It spoils the magic somehow.

Even if I did feel the need, I just don’t have the musical acuity of a Rainbow Snr or the critical vocabulary of a Southall. I just go with gut feeling. I found ‘Discover America’ supremely disorienting the first time I heard it. The second time it sounded like a crazy, sunny wonder. My only complaint is that it leaves me tantalised. Why is this such a curio? Why didn’t a tributary of the pop floodplain flow down from this record? How would the next 20 years have been different if our most prominent songwriters has displayed such  wild abandon and then chucked in such grin-spreading tunes?

Graham listened: When I saw the cover of this immediately concluded we were in for  something like REO Speedwagon or Journey. Not that I have have any of their albums, it just looks like the album cover that they would have.

That scary moment aside, I was very confused by this and the who/why’s/what’s it all about for a while. Something definitely not to bother too much about with this album and far better just to sit back and enjoy a very strange but ultimately ‘feelgood’ classic that I had never heard of prior to DRC.

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