Van Dyke Parks’ latest twist: the album ‘Songs Cycled’

Van Dyke Parks' musical journey has included arranging for the likes of U2, scoring films and more.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

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.

“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 allusive 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 Barrère, 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.


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Parks spins shorter but no less detailed stories on “Songs Cycled,” a new album due out Tuesday 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.

An earlier online version of this article and its headline had an incorrect name for Van Dyke Parks’ latest album. It is titled “Songs Cycled,” not “Song Cycled.” It also gave an incorrect name for Parks’ 1968 solo debut album. It is titled “Song Cycle,” not “Songs Cycle.”

This month at the Central Library downtown he took part in a performance of songs about Los Angeles during the city’s 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 — in order to find new sounds. “Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened to me if I’d continued going along like that.”

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.

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The album’s title refers to Parks’ 1968 solo debut, “Song Cycle,” a trippy touchstone for pastoral-minded indie rock acts such as Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear, 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.”

Like all of his recorded work, 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 (and showed me this month at his house) 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, sipping sweet tea from a Mason jar wrapped in paper towels, a vestige of his childhood in the Deep South. “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. What’s more, he thinks that to be a good film composer is to have no distinctive style.

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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,” said George, who joined Parks in his show at the Central Library. “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.”

In Parks’ own life, he seems to be putting some thought into his legacy these days. Last year he reissued three of his old albums through the Bella Union label, which is also putting out “Songs Cycled.” And one of his sons is filming interviews and concerts for a documentary about Parks. But if he’s thinking about how he’ll be remembered, the memories are hardly bogging him down. Asked whether 70 feels old, he laughed.

“No, not at all,” he replied. “This is so shocking to me, but I’m more able than ever to do what I do.”