Van Dyke Parks' "Arrangements Volume 1" Looks Back In Pleasure

Van Dyke Parks: singer, songwriter, arranger, session musician, producer, creator of soundtracks, music video audio-visual pioneer...raconteur, (I'm sure I'm missing a few)...and above all, an artist. I can't think of another figure in recorded music for whom the title "Renaissance Man" would be more fitting.

However, this record is all about VanDyke as the architect of truly magnificent arrangements...and it's a collection that I, for one, have been waiting on for a long, long time.

To begin with, stylistically, the selections on this record are all over the map, which is one the compilation's great strengths. That Parks was able to firmly place his stamp on this divergent array of tracks is the hallmark of a gifted and sympathetic arranger. It's also clear that Van Dyke invested his heart and soul into every track. His care, passion, and unmistakable love of creating music shines through.

I'm tempted to run this collection down in detail, track by track, but that would deny you the opportunity to find some special favorites, and that's part of the fun on a record like this. Instead, let's cover some major ground...

Nearly half the tracks on Arrangements Volume 1 are Van Dyke's own solo efforts. Most qualify as true rarities, and are as scarce on record. A few early (pre-Warner Bros.) MGM tracks are startling considering that when they were cut Parks was a mere youngster in his early 20's. The level of sophistication in the relationship of instruments, one to another, is breathtaking.

"Come To The Sunshine" (later cut by Harpers Bizarre) bears this out. Guitars, mandolins, and keyboards create a tapestry that engulfs the track with a positively delicious warmth. Add to this Parks' fabulous vocal arranging and performing. He sings all of the parts with a self-overdubbing skill that was only to by matched by future pal Harry Nilsson. Van Dyke's vocal arranging ability would soon be put into greater practice a year later with Harpers Bizarre...

"Sit Down, I Think I Love You" may go down in history as the greatest Mamas & Papas single that this seminal group never recorded. Yet, despite the similar overall M&P's vibe—notably in the stupendous vocal arrangement and performances, it's the backing track that hits and sticks in the most profound way.

Van Dyke marries guitars, mandolins and dobro ('tuneful percussion', as he likes to refer to these instruments), along with accordion, his own effervescent tack piano, Randy Newman's electric piano and a rock-solid rhythm section.

What becomes apparent on all of these tracks—especially on the early 4 and 8 track recordings—is that despite the rich overdubbed musical atmosphere that Van Dyke creates, the bass and drums are never misunderstood, muddy or relegated to a subordinate role. On every cut they are perfectly placed, underpinning and driving the rhythm—something that can't be said of every pop masterpiece from this era.

"Sit Down…" was a joyful slice of avant-garde sunshine pop that easily slipped its way into the Top 40 at a time (early 1967) when the style was reaching a dizzying peak ("Happy Together", "Feelin' Groovy" and "Penny Lane", among many others), and with this record, Parks' clearly demonstrated that he was one of genre's most gifted practitioners. This Stephen Stills-penned charmer was also the first Lenny Waronker/V.D.P production collaboration to reach a wide audience, going Top-20 with a grin.

"Friends And Lovers" quietly threatens to dwarf the entire record. This exceedingly rare track was the B-side of ex-Beau Brummels vocalist Sal Valentino's exquisite 1969 Cajun-drenched "Alligator Man" single (happily, also included in this collection). With the help of Kirby Johnson's string arrangement, Parks' musical setting borders on beauty that's difficult to capture in words.

The bittersweet resignation in Valentino's vocal performance (quite possibly his finest) is echoed perfectly in Parks' work here. A continual and lazy echo makes its way from instrument to instrument; from the gently loping bass, to a brushed snare, to the more tuneful percussion, to strings, horns and to a gorgeous harmonica (Tommy Morgan?) topped by a fluttering harp.

The overall effect is positively narcotic—in the best sense of the word. The only track from the era to which I can rightfully compare it would be Jack Nitzsche's stunning arrangement on Buffalo Springfield/Neil Young's "Expecting To Fly." "Friends And Lovers" just may have the edge...

With its infectious momentum, bounce, and down-home elegance, Arlo Guthrie's "Valley To Pray" is a not to be missed gospel gem. Bonnie Raitt's "Wah' She Go Do" is a sassy slice of Calypso that brought Park's visionary work with Esso Trinidad Steel Band to a more mainstream audience. More wonders that are worthy of detailing abound on this record, but you'll have to discover them yourself.

The audio quality and digital transfers are overall first-rate, although it's important to remember that these selections were originally recorded on a wide array of equipment during an ever-changing and limit-smashing period of audio experimentation. It'll definitely keep you on your toes. There were obviously some situations that required certain rare tracks, namely "Farther Along" from Van Dyke's early MGM period, to be transferred directly from an original and somewhat worn 45. What are you going to do, not include this minor masterpiece?! I think not... and in a way, it's inclusion in my opinion adds to the collection's overall charm.

To conclude, Arrangements Volume 1 is a long awaited, overdue and indispensable volume that at the very least scratches the surface (can't wait for Volume 2…) of Van Dyke Parks's illustrious achievements as an arranger—all of it beguiling to both the ear and the heart.

Michael Fremer comments:

I bought the gatefold 180g vinyl edition, knowing that obviously, it would be digitally sourced. The packaging is first rate, with “tip on” (paper on cardboard) jacket, great photos from the Warner Brothers archives and the 180 gram Rainbo pressing was flawless.

I’ve been a VDP fan since his epic Song Cycle album, that’s currently crying out for a proper AAA vinyl reissue. And that’s where this set begins—with the rare mono single mix of VDP’s astonishing re-imagining of Donovan’s folk ditty “Colours” (Yellow is the color of my true love’s hair…”), that he called “Donovan’s Colours” and credited to George Washington Brown.

By listening to this zany, ragtime, silent movie, LSD-fragmented, ripped to pieces and put back together version of this melodically basic tune, you get a good listen inside VDP’s creative head.

While it’s obvious from his arrangements that he’s equal parts traditional musical arranger and studio enthusiast who plays the place like another musical instrument, his annotation really puts that into sharp focus.

Parks writes about hearing as a child, some of the formative records that were as much studio creations as they were arrangements in the traditional sense. He cites Spike Jones’ gurgling, spitting and hilarious “Cocktails For Two” as “startling”, which it surely was, and with its playful “mouth percussion”, was a production to which any young person might gravitate. I know I did!

He also cites the pioneering multi-track recordings of Les Paul and Mary Ford that excited the imaginations of many youngsters in the early 1950s. The sounds were other worldly, sleek and modern, like the new cars being produced at the time.

VDP writes of this bold post WWII experimentation as “studio ear candy” and listening to this collection makes clear that his intent was to produce same, married to sophisticated musical arrangements.

Listening in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s to Parks’ arrangements for Arlo Guthrie, Ry Cooder and others made clear that this was a guy with a singular vision to shift the musical tectonic plates and thus undermine accepted musical and production theory every time he had the chance, while not intruding (too far) into the artistic space of the performer.

The annotation begins with Parks’ tribute to the legendary (in arranging circles) but mostly unknown Bob Thompson who came to prominence during what Parks calls “…the Big Bang Burst of Hi Fi Stereo…” He describes Thompson as “…a paradigm of the short list of such musical genius that thrived in the Golden Age of analogue recording.”

Parks mentions Thompson’s groundbreaking, 1960 experimental album The Sound of Speed that Sundazed had the good taste to reissue a few years ago. We reviewed it back in 2010.

He also describes bringing to Thompson some reference tapes of tunes he wanted arranged for his Discover America album (also reissued by Sundazed) and seeing a wall of gold records and awards that Thompson told him were “…not worth a damn cent” because arrangers never got their due or their share of the spotlight or the glory.

Despite such discouragement, Parks continued pursuing his art and craft and as he describes it, he did manage to “scratch out my own hard-scrabble life as an underpaid arranger, yet able to propel three offspring through their collegiate careers.”

Better yet, Parks has also propelled younger generations of musical offspring to both appreciate his work and sign him on to arrange their work. How gratifying to be asked to collaborate with shining young musical talents like Rufus Wainright and Joanna Newsom.

This is Volume 1 of a planned multi-album release. Of course we can expect future volumes to include some of Parks’ famous collaborations with Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, but he’s also worked with everyone from Frank Zappa and Ringo Starr to Keith Moon and Harry Nilsson.

As for the sound, I have to disagree with Matthew Greenwald. I’ve got original pressings of some of the tracks here, including the rare mono white label promo radio version of Song Cycle (yes, I am a big fan) and I can tell you the versions on this album, probably sourced from digital files supplied by the record labels, are soft, pale editions compared to the vibrant, dynamic originals. So think of this album as a worthwhile, panoramic sampler from which to choose the originals you wish to pursue.

As a longtime VDP fan, I found this compilation a smartly constructed compendium of the man’s early efforts, not at all hurt by the artists here with whom he’s collaborated. As for Volume 2 Parks promises it will be “…a different matter, with an exponential craft improvement on (his) part.”

Considering the quality here, that’s a tall order, but those of us who know what’s probably coming, aren’t at all lacking in confidence that he’ll deliver!

You can read a Van Dyke Parks interview Matthew Greenwald conducted back in the mid-nineties, originally published in The Tracking Angle and later posted in 2003 on the website.

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TMink's picture

is on my go to "let's cheer up" playlist. The fun and light and playful arrangements along with Brian's awkward yet full of gusto singing just melts me. Sounds like I need to get this, thanks for the heads up.