Van Dyke Parks

Discover America

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Van Dyke Parks is one of a handful of artists possessing a purity of vision that graces every project he is involved with. Very few could pull off an album titled Discover America -- with all the themes and motifs befitting such a moniker -- done entirely in the style of the Caribbean, most specifically Trinidad circa the 1940s. The songs weave together in a sonic tapestry that connects the untiring Yankee spirit of ingenuity with the opulence and romanticism of the islands. While tomes could easily be devoted to dissecting the album's multiple layers of meaning, to call it an eclectic masterpiece of multicultural Americana might be a start. While the contents of the album as a whole are tropical in flavor, there are numerous examples of Parks' trademark swaddling arrangements and unique perspectives -- such as odes to his favorite vocalists ("Bing Crosby" and the marvelous "The Four Mills Brothers"). Just as he had done with the "Bicycle Rider" suite on Brian Wilson's Smile, Parks has the uncanny ability to incorporate various active musical story lines at once. "John Jones," for example, is the saga of a pioneer-era gunslinger set to a laid-back reggae beat. This brilliant technique is likewise incorporated into "FDR in Trinidad" -- featuring the distinct instrumental backing of Little Feat replete with electric guitar punctuations from fret master Lowell George. The band is flawless in their interpretation of Parks' quirky and addictively potent chord changes. The sheer breadth of musical approaches on Discover America may take the uninitiated a few listens to truly absorb. These idiosyncrasies range from the artificially added vinyl surface noise heard during the diminutive opening track "Jack Palance" -- which mentions the actor's name in referring to a woman who shares the same facial features (yikes!) -- to the irony and humor-laden saga of the crime-fighting "G-Man Hoover." Another track worth mentioning is the spoken-word "Introduction," in which presumably Parks portrays a bus tour-guide. The heavy and purposeful tape editing is highly reminiscent of Captain Beefheart's "The Dust Blows Forward ..." or the introduction to "Pena" from his epic Trout Mask Replica. Discover America is a pop music history lesson that is without question one of the lost classics of the early '70s. Likewise, it may as easily have been several decades ahead of its time.

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