Arrangements Volume 1
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Arrangements Volume I
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'Here's Volume One, dating from my earliest studio adventures in the '60s. Come To The Sunshine was the first such arrangement. It was written about my dad and his band 'The White Swan Serenaders' (who played at the White Swan Hotel in Punxsutawny, PA.) This single on MGM gave me my first real adventure at the dawn of multitrack recording (although it was done in just 3 takes). Throughout, you'll hear what I learned about arranging. Bear in mind I went on to scratch out my own hard-scrabble life as an underpaid arranger, yet able to propel three offspring through their collegiate careers. They learned enough to avoid my occupational mistakes, pursuing other careers. Volume Two will be a different matter, with an exponential craft improvement on my part. Still, this must be my confession, as a review of my past work may offer great instruction to others who move the recorded arts beyond my wildest dreams. Clearly, my best work lies ahead''. - Van Dyke Parks Pasadena, CA, March '11.
His arranging work has put an inimitable stamp on American pop, though the vast majority of music fans have no idea when they are listening to his work. He is the quintessential liner-notes hero, in other words, which makes the overview of Arrangements, Vol. 1 that much more gratifying.
The compilation is curated by Parks himself, drawing on what he calls ''my earliest studio adventures in the 60s.'' The roster represented here is dizzying - Little Feat, Arlo Guthrie, Sal Valentino, Bonnie Raitt singing calypso - and hearing Parks' unifying hand presiding over this collision of styles makes for a wonderful way to experience the art of his arrangements; their lushness, their invention, how they provide the texture and teeth to a composition. He opens with an arrangement ripped off the bones of the song it was meant to accompany: a mono single mix of Donovan's Donovan's Colours. It's a gently instructive focusing tool for the rest of the album, training our ears to go to the margins, to pay attention to the filigree.
Not that Parks' arrangements need much prompting to be noticed. They don't exactly fade demurely into the background; they jostle and blurt, intruding brazenly into the songs they support. His arrangement for Sal Valentino's goofy zydeco number Alligator Man boasts not one vigorously sawing fiddle, but two - on top of twinkling mandolins, a seasick tuba groaning low notes, snatches of saloon piano, and a piping saxophone. It sounds horrendously overcrowded on paper, but Parks has an uncanny instinct for how to densely populate a composition's every corner without choking it. The instruments are spaced evenly in the mix, and the result feels like a bustling table of gregarious friends instead of a crazy-making riot.
All of these embellishments, of course, were obsessively layered and re-layered onto increasingly overworked analog tape, and Arrangements, which kicks off with the sound of a rickety reel-to-reel firing up, is also partly a tale told by that tape. Parks' arrangements come through intriguingly warped, and the wobbly, dazed sound world that results, however accidental, is crucial to the record's appeal. The sumptuous string orchestra Parks supplies to Arlo Guthrie's take on the Appalachian standard Valley to Pray, sounds gelatinous, a symphony viewed through a fish-bowl. The Mojo Men's Sit Down I Think I Love You would be a standard-issue mod-pop song in a simpler context, but Parks' arrangement sends the song stumbling through a haze of slide guitar and bandoneón that feels like linoleum curling in real time. It's nearly impossible to pick out every individual instrument from the soup on these songs (is that a harp? a celesta? a zither?), but the sound world is wonderfully dense and liquid, and it fills headphones like sunlight flooding a window.
The songs selected on Arrangements are uniformly fantastic. Bonnie Raitt's cover of Calypso Rose's racy Wah She Go Do is hilarious and startling, and Jimmy Cliff's Sitting in Limbo gets an improbably gorgeous reading by Dean Martin's son Dino. But trying to imagine them without Parks' additions, as the compilation encourages you to, is illuminating. Pop-song arrangements tend to hide in plain sight, and are usually practiced by spotlight-averse eccentrics who fit comfortably into neither the classical or the pop worlds. But the pop universe would be drained of color without them - try to hear the Delfonics' La-La (Means I Love You) without its nimbus of strings, or, for that matter, the Beach BoysSurf's Up without the distant horns and chimes. Arrangements is a joy to spend time with, but it also amounts to a pretty forceful argument for the lost art of arrangement itself, and for Parks as one of its unrivaled masters. --Jayson Greene, Pitchfork, 9/22/11