In his often witty and deeply evocative liner notes to his album Super Chief, Van Dyke Parks recalls a chance meeting with the great silent screen star Lillian Gish during his days as a child actor, and when the young Parks asked Miss Gish how she reacted to the coming of talking pictures, she replied, "You see, when we heard that movies would have sound...all of us acting in them naturally assumed that all that sound would just be music!" One senses that as a composer who occasionally works in movies, Parks wishes that were the case, and for Super Chief, he's created what he's called "an orchestral fantasy" fashioned in part from bits of music he wrote for various film scores. (Parks doesn't tell which selections came from which pictures, saying some of the films were never released or the excerpts here were from scenes that didn't make the final cut; for hardcore film buffs, that could make this album an interesting guessing game.) For Super Chief, Parks has given the music a new context, as they're meant to provide a backdrop for his story of traveling from the East Coast to Hollywood for the first time aboard a luxurious rail car, with romance and glamour on his mind as he made his way through the heartland to the city where dreams came to life. Not surprisingly, Super Chief sounds like film music, smart, well-crafted, full of allusions to America's musical past ("The Water Is Wide," "I Ride an Old Paint," and "Old Joe Clark" are among the familiar tunes he quotes here), and capable of conjuring images all by itself, though the overall tone is less whimsical than many of the orchestral-based pieces Parks has written for his own albums ("Teepee Motel" and "Forgotten Not Gone" both have a spare and somber edge). As a listening experience, Super Chief is full of grace and charm, a scrapbook of musical snapshots that cohere into a satisfying whole, though the absence of recurring themes makes it less of a symphonic work than Parks may have imagined. And as a résumé piece, it demonstrates Parks is a composer who was born to write for the movies, and hopefully this won't be his last sampling of film music from his archives.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming