Van Dyke Parks has a story for everything in his life, from the name of his pet schnauzer to the mug in which he served a visitor coffee on a recent morning at his antique-lined home in Pasadena, Calif.
“You know where I got that cup?” asked Parks, an important figure on the margins of the Los Angeles pop scene since the mid-1960s, when he wrote lyrics for the Beach Boys’ ill-fated “Smile” album.
The mug was emblazoned with the logo of the New York Flute Club, founded nearly a century ago by Georges Barrere, whose grandson Paul went on to play in the band Little Feat with one of Parks’ best friends, the late Lowell George. And one day in a forest in upstate New York, Paul Barrere – well, it was a lengthy tale, with far more detail than can be printed here.
Parks spins shorter but no less detailed stories on “Songs Cycled,” a new album from this 70-year-old musical polymath, whose twisty-turny career has encompassed his own elaborate pop records; orchestral arrangements for the likes of U2 and Bonnie Raitt; film and TV scores; and the occasional detour into acting and children’s books.
This month he took part in a performance of songs about Los Angeles’ early days, including “Orange Crate Art,” the title track from a collaborative album Parks made with Brian Wilson in 1995.
“He’s a brilliantly creative guy,” said Randy Newman, who hired Parks to co-produce his self-titled debut in 1968 and remembered the lengths they went to – such as outlawing the use of a drum – to find new sounds.
On “Songs Cycled,” the first studio disc he’s released under his own name in more than 20 years, Parks’ flair for off-kilter invention is as pronounced as ever, with songs that pepper old-fashioned string-band strumming with jazzy horn blasts and layered vocal harmonies that veer unexpectedly from soothing to shocking.
The album’s title refers to Parks’ 1968 solo debut, “Song Cycle,” and to the fact that the new set complements original tunes with remakes of cuts he’s recorded before.
Yet the inspiration feels fresh, especially in a handful of topical numbers, including “Wall Street” and “Black Gold,” which Parks said is about the “chicanery of Big Oil.”
The music is lovingly arranged and carefully played, but it also carries an undercurrent of outraged electricity, one that stretches back to the letter Parks wrote in 1970 imploring Frank Sinatra to use his celebrity to bring attention to the pollution of Santa Monica Bay.
And it was the need to release that electricity that called him back to recording his own music after a long spell working with – he calls it “working for” – others, contributing to records by Joanna Newsom, Inara George and, in a rather unlikely pairing, the young dubstep star Skrillex.
“When you’re working as an arranger, you’re given a job,” Parks said. “But often it’s with someone I don’t agree with.” That’s no problem, as far as Parks is concerned. “I don’t think it’s important to lead a life with people who are in concord with what you are or do or believe,” he said.
But as someone who believes the song form is the “most potent political tool available,” as he puts it, Parks was moved to action, a development that didn’t surprise George, a member of L.A.’s the Bird and the Bee and the daughter of Little Feat’s Lowell.
“That’s what he’s in music for,” she said. “There’s always been such an intentionality behind his playing, even with the old songs. It’s about who wrote it and what happened in their life and what they stood for.”
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