Van Dyke Parks “Discover America”

Discover America

Van Dyke Parks’ second album, released four years after his celebrated Song Cycle,  is an exploration of Trinidadian calypso music infused with Parks’ ingeniously offbeat treatment. Like its predecessor, the record is clever, intriguing, and musically brilliant. Discover America adds an unexpected ingredient: fun.

The album opener echoes that of Song Cycle‘s, an intentionally degraded song clip, “Jack Palance” performed by the Mighty Sparrow himself (those interested in exploring more calypso through this angle might investigate Mighty Sparrow’s Hot and Sweet, an album produced by Van Dyke Parks in 1974). Wooden marimbas, steel drums, island rhythms, and other calypso staples (supplied by the Esso Trinidad Steel Band) grace many of the tracks, but Parks maintains style thru vast string arrangements, orchestration, gratuitous experimental bits, and the vintage Americana themes examined in the lyrics.

Parks reimagines and rearranges traditional material on Discover America, as well as borrowing two killer tunes from Allen Touissaint (“Occapella” and “Riverboat”) and Lowell George’s “Sailin’ Shoes” (Little Feat actually play on Park’s “FDR In Trinidad”). The adapted material is brilliantly produced and addictingly melodic. Couple of standouts include the lilting “John Jones” and mind boggling “G-Man Hoover” (a tune as weird as it is captivating), though the entire album is consistently 5-star. A masterpiece from a master.

Song Cycle is great but not for everyone. If you’re looking to play Van Dyke Parks in a public forum, this is the album. I would submit that it’s catchy, fun, odd, and funky enough to be played just about anywhere. Have it with you this summer.

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“John Jones”

:) Vinyl Reissue | Sundazed | buy sundazed ]
:D CD Reissue | 1990 | Warner | buy amazon ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1972 |  Warner | search ebay ]
8-) Spotify link | listen ]

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  • This is AWESOME. I’ve loved Smile for years but never delved into Park’s solo stuff. I’m going to be all over it and soon.

  • W. Stacy

    A desert island disc of mine for about 6 years. Totally introduced me to Calypso music of Trinidad. You may want to check out a later period Mighty Sparrow album that VDP produced around this same time. There is also the classic Esso Trinidad Steel Band album, again, produced by VDP.

    With this island music and the Little Feat reference I sense some old Robert Palmer coming (Clues? Double Fun?). Maybe?

  • Joshua Bonder

    An incredible album which somehow brings together such disparate performers as Lee Dorsey and Mighty Sparrow. Parks’ arrangements are works of wonder, and ooze funk and feeling. The musicians on the album are just awesome, and include some of the members of Little Feat. If anyone is interested, the Mighty Sparrow album produced by Parks is called “Hot & Sweet”, and is an excellent buy. Other related music is a rounder album called “Roosevelt in Trinidad” featuring some of the early calypso tunes covered here, and Lee Dorsey’s “Yes We Can”, featuring both “Riverboat” and “Occapella”. All of this is great music, but only the genius of Parks could bring it all together to make such a cohesive and original album.

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