High flyers: Parks collaborated with The Byrds on its Fifth Dimension album
Grizzly Bear's Friend EP has been on heavy rotation on my iPod for a while now. It's a good in-between-albums release consisting of the new and old songs covered and remixed by Deerhunter, CSS and Band of Horses.
Yet, the one thing that keeps me coming back to Grizzly Bear since their second album would be the undoubtedly influence of Van Dyke Parks' album Song Cycle. It's a widely acknowledged classic, yet I've always struggled with it: I find the records it's influenced more enjoyable than the album itself. Released in 1968 on Reprise, Song Cycle has had a strange and gratifying legacy which still permeates through pop music.
Parks was a key guy around the soft pop scene in Hollywood. A child actor and musical prodigy, he became known in rock'n'roll circles after working on the Byrds' Fifth Dimension and turning down the chance at full membership in the band. The Byrds connection led him to Brian Wilson, with whom he collaborated on lyrics for the infamous Smile project. Song Cycle secured his legacy further. It's a wild ride of folk, classical, Broadway, ragtime, jazz, 50s pop, and rock'n'roll influences; an all-encompassing musical trip through America. It should have been huge yet the public didn't agree. The album failed commercially to the extent that it didn't recoup its recording costs for 10 years. Reprise even offered potential buyers free copies to give to their friends. Critical opinion was polarised - they either loved it or hated it.
However, many contemporary musicians love the album. When Joanna Newsom commissioned Parks to do the string arrangements on her last album Ys, it could have been another concession to the past. Yet Parks' work on the album was brilliant, part of the reason why Ys was so much bigger than Newsom's previous effort The Milk-Eyed Mender. Maybe Rolling Stone was right when it ended its so-so review of Song Cycle by saying that it may not bring the love of the masses but a musical liberation to the artists. The idea of the pop song as orchestral composition caught between a Disney soundtrack, Brian Wilson and Phil Spector does sound weirdly liberating, and the idea has appealed to artists as diverse as Silverchair and Frank Stallone, both of whom have used Parks' arrangements.
Which again brings me back to Song Cycle - shouldn't it then be easier to listen to? To me, it sounds like pop-as-science rather than pop-as-fun. One musician who learned its lessons best is Jim O'Rourke, the former Sonic Youth and Wilco member, producer and solo artist. His work throws different angles and illumination on the Parks sound and understands its ethos.
With producer Danger Mouse bringing in Parks to arrange London band the Shortwave Set's new record, it looks like another less in pop science will be hitting us in 2008. In the end, I agree Song Cycle is a classic but I enjoy the man's influence more than his albums - agree or disagree?