Van Dyke Parks

Tokyo Rose

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Given Van Dyke Parks' well-documented fascination with the various and sundry collision points of American musical culture with the rest of the world, he was as good a candidate as any to make a concept album about the often uneasy relationship between the United States and Japan, and he approached the subject on his fifth album, 1989's Tokyo Rose. Tokyo Rose concerns itself with America's mingled condescension, infatuation, and contempt toward Japan, as well as Japan's often skewed perception of America and it's cultural icons -- Uncle Sam woos the Dragon Lady, Japan learns to love baseball, and everyone tries to figure out where the cowboys came from. Parks' songs dip satiric arrows into sweet but poisoned wit; the lyrics are never less than amusing (even when they're too wordy and self-consciously clever, which is often), and the lush and elaborate orchestrations are dotted with both "authentic" Japanese themes and well-turned cliches of both Asian and American musical figures. Tokyo Rose often sounds like the original cast album to some eccentric Broadway musical about footloose and pretentious Ugly Americans vacationing in the Pacific Rim, especially since Parks hands over a few of his lead vocals to other singers (including former Three Dog Night belter Danny Hutton), but even though Parks' slightly precious tenor rarely sounds like the perfect instrument for this stuff, he seems to fit the songs better than anyone else on board. Tokyo Rose occasionally gets lost in its own ambitions, and it's sometimes a bit too smart for its own good, but there are precious few people in the American popular musical scene who could tackle this sort of material and make it work so well; if it's not quite a masterpiece, it's at least an experiment that works.

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