10 Feb 2019

Van Dyke Parks Sprinkles Magic

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 10 February 2019

William Dart listens to the last two songs in Lawrence Arabia's year-long Singles Club project. And because one of these has an arrangement by Van Dyke Parks, William is only too happy to wallow in some VDP gloriousness.

Van Dyke Parks

Van Dyke Parks Photo: screenshot ex https://youtu.be/4EulShACp5M

Sometimes, I indulge in the harmless amusement of constructing a personal dream band. A little like Playboy magazine used to do for its annual Jazz and Pop poll. A 1973 issue in front of me now has one such line-up caught in a Bill Utterback drawing with Mick Jagger and Carole King as top vocalists fronting a big band that has Miles Davis playing second trumpet to Doc Severinsen, Jethro Tull flautist Ian Anderson alongside New Orleans clarinetist Pete Fountain and  Lionel Hampton on vibes just behind bass man Paul McCartney.

For me, there’d always be a place in the band for Van Dyke Parks, a musician of class, wit, style and sass, whose music is the sonic proof that the road of excess can indeed lead to a Palace of Wisdom.

I remember my absolute startlement 52 years ago, at how this man, in just over a minute, managed to concoct such as dazzling kaleidoscope as this to evoke the hip, and hippie, Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

Even putting aside Van Dyke Parks’ own albums, which go back to this 1967 magnum opus titled Song Cycle, his colouring in of other men’s and women’s music, is a study in itself.

Musicians from the Everly Brothers to The Chills can thank Parks for having their songs transported in one of his idiosyncratic musical carriages.

Choosing just one sample I’d probably go for Harry Nilsson’s soundtrack to Robert Altman’s 1980 Popeye movie, and Parks’ quirky, lurching surround for Shelley Duvall as she contemplates her spinach-dependent hero.

Late last year, I devoted a whole programme to the ten available songs of Lawrence Arabia’s Singles Club project. Since then, numbers 11 and 12 have appeared. 11 bursts out of with what seems to have been a difficult gestation. The singer describes it as the archetypal journey of creation, running from genesis, excitement, ennui, epiphany and megalomania through to  doubt, self-hatred and finally acceptance.

Listening to this song, titled "Oppositional Democracy", you find yourself trying to pick out those moments of time in the musical journey. It’s not hard maybe to find doubt in the piano’s strange harmonic twists, in every alternate bar, that underpin its verses. And perhaps epiphany arrives when the man lets loose with a full-blooded chorus, megalomania rearing its head when some stroppy guitar takes the spotlight. All courtesy of the man himself,  apart from Elroy Finn on drums.

I suppose it had to happen that James Milne, the real name behind the Lawrence Arabia moniker, a man who writes songs for connoisseurs and cherishers, would team up with Van Dyke Parks. And it did, in the very last of the Singles Club songs, titled "Just Sleep (Your Shame Will Keep)".

It isn’t a totally new number. It had turned up on the Duncan Sarkies podcast serial, The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium, in which Milne has a continuing dramatic role as Solander, the side-kick of Jermaine Clement’s Lord Joseph Banks.

Milne ends the fourth episode by soothing the twitchy Clement by fluffing pillows, checking out his nodes and finally, singing this lullaby, to his mandolute. A disarmingly casual lilt in 6/8.

Obviously, with Clement’s hearty snoring, the lullaby is an effective pacifier in the podcast, but you’re not going to drift off when Milne transforms it to join the ranks of the Singles Club. The original lilt of 6/8 can be elusive at times, and the subtle minor key inflections make more of an impact, cleverly staving off the spirit of the Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson song, "Makin’ Whoopee".

But, above all, it’s Van Dyke Parks's musical mink that makes this such a triumphant finale for Milne’s twelve months of song-crafting.

And it’s a real trans-Pacific alliance with Parks himself very much at the core of it all on piano and accordion.

If, like me, you’ve often looked through various album’s orchestral credits and wondered who the valiant musicians might be, this time they’re players that Aucklanders might have seen on the town hall or other stages: Christine Kim and Luca Manghi on flutes, Courtney Evison on clarinet, Noah Rudd on oboe, Andrew Uren on bass clarinet and, thoroughly enjoying her scurrying bass lines, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s Bella Zilber.

Listening to Van Dyke Parks’ piece of sonic alchemy on that Lawrence Arabia song takes me back to 1995 when I was lucky enough to spend an hour with the man himself, courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell.

It was rambling chat, to be sure, very much focusing around his recent album with Brian Wilson, Orange Crate Art.

At one point I asked him about his work with other folks’ songs, which he answered with disarming honesty, ending with a hint that a young Rufus Wainwright was waiting in the wings.

The Rufus Wainright project that Parks mentioned, the singer’s very first album, did get recorded over 1996 and 97 and, when it came out in 1998, one of my highlights was Parks’s luscious string writing for the song "Millbrook".

And should Van Dyke Parks be on the lookout for any further Kiwi connections, following on from his work with Lawrence Arabia, I can’t resist nominating Christchurch singer Lukas Mayo who, like James Milne, works under another name. In this case, Pickle Darling.

Mayo creates music that he’s happy to describe as lo-fi James Blunt, put together with a line-up of melodica, guitar and glockenspiel in what could be a bedroom studio.

Last year’s Pickle Darling EP was titled Spring Onion Pancakes. I’ve missed out on three editions of its limited cassette release, shipped from Slovakia with the bonus of some Solvakian sweets, a Z tapes sticker and a thank you note. There’s some significant colour play going on in this packaging as the cassettes graduate from yellow through blue to pink, perfectly reflecting the singer’s fixation with Jayne Mansfield’s favourite hue.

His latest release, a full album of ten songs titled Bigness, still has the boy bedroom soundscape. If you want it in your hand, there’s a limited release of the set on pink vinyl.

But this time around, the pink is stronger and more pungent, as are the songs — in both sound and structure — opening with one that could be a high rotate summer hit. And in my mind’s ear, I can’t help imagining Van Dyke Parks infiltrating his piano and accordion into the mix.

You can hear all these songs and several more by clicking on the 'Listen' button up above.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers

'My Kind of Town' (Cahn, Van Heusen) – Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle Orchestra
My Way: The Best of Frank Sinatra

'Laurel Canyon Boulevard' (Parks) – Van Dyke Parks
Song Cycle

'He Needs Me' (Nilsson) – Shelley Duvall
Popeye, Original motion Picture Soundtrack

'He Needs Me' (Nilsson) – Clare and the Reasons
Live in Amsterdam
(Frog Stand)

'Oppositional Democracy' (Milne) – Lawrence Arabia
Singles Club
(Honorary Bedouin)

'The Sleepy Song' (Milne) – James Milne, Jermaine Clement
The Mysterious Secrets of Uncle Bertie’s Botanarium
(Ex Soundcloud)

'Just Sleep (Your Shame Will Keep)' (Milne) – Lawrence Arabia
Singles Club
(Honorary Bedouin)

'Millbrook' (Wainwright) – Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright
(Dream Works)

'Hello, Goodbye' (Lennon, McCartney) – Pickle Darling
Oh Golly Gosh, It’s the Beatles
(Z Tapes)

'Pink Hair' (Mayo) – Pickle Darling
Spring Onion Pancakes
(Z Tapes)

'Bicycle Weather' (Mayo) – Pickle Darling
(Z Tapes)