A compositional form; a composer takes already existing text (or writes some himself) and then sets the text to music in a lyrical song-like manner.

Song cycles may be in any language and through the years have begun to show up in many different sizes of orchestration - from piano and voice to full orchestra and voice.

Traditionally, a song cycle's contents are all related in some way, either all being part of the same story, or from the same author, etc. Only one voice sings during each song, although voices may alternate or change between songs. If more than one voice sings during a song it slides into opera.

With the advent of the musical academia from the dawn of the 20th century until today, I imagine that pretty much anything that features an instrument, divisions, and at least one voice may be called a song cycle. A true song cycle adheres to a symphonic form which dictates ranges, voice leading, orchestration, subject matter, and structure.
Song Cycle, released in 1968 is Van Dyke Parks' first album as a solo artist. Previous to this, he had been working as a session arranger and keyboard player (arranging for example The Mojo Men's version of Sit Down, I Think I Love You and playing on records for Paul Revere And The Raiders and The Byrds) as well as releasing a few unsuccessful singles, some under the name George Washington Brown.

Parks' most famous work though at the time, and still to this day the work he's best known for, was his work with the Beach Boys (specifically Brian Wilson) on the unreleased Smile album. (Although every song for which Parks had written complete lyrics was released in one form or another by 1971).

This album has some of the ambition that the admirers of the overrated Smile claim for it but, possibly because there's no mystique around a released but commercially unsuccessful album, has never attracted a simillar fanbase. Beach Boys fans who have not heard this album could best imagine it by thinking of the Smile music (tuned percussion, sections repeating in later songs, modular composition, extremely opaque music and lyrics) without the aspects that survived to Smiley Smile (extreme tunefulness, a sense of fun).

Which is not to say that this album is bad - in my view it's among the best of the 60s - but it is extremely difficult listening. It might appeal to fans of Kurt Weill, Frank Zappa, Stephen Foster, Carl Stalling or Charles Ives but sounds nothing like any of them. It is, as the title suggests, a song cycle, albeit one not entirely composed by Parks (Vine Street is written by Parks' friend and occasional collaborator Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks is actually a version of Nearer My God To Thee and Donovan's Colours is a ragtime-ish instrumental version of Colours by Donovan), but while certain themes become apparent in the lyrics, they are written in a Joycean style that makes immediate comprehension difficult - a sample line (from Palm Desert) is 'Inasmuch as you are touched to have withstood by the very old search for the truth within the bounds of toxicity'...

The album was produced by Lenny Waronker and mixed by Bruce Botnick. All arrangements by Parks except Vine St arranged by Newman.

Tracklist:


  1. Vine Street
  2. Palm Desert
  3. Widow's Walk
  4. Laurel Canyon Blvd.
  5. The All Golden
  6. Van Dyke Parks
  7. Public Domain
  8. Donovan's Colours
  9. The Attic
  10. Laurel Canyon Blvd. (not a typo - there are two versions of the same song)
  11. By The People
  12. Pot Pourri

A word of advice to potential purchasers - even though I'm an analogue man in general, in this case it is definitely worth getting the CD reissue (on Rykodisc) as opposed to getting a second-hand vinyl copy, even though the vinyl is generally easy to come by. Parks' singing voice is not great, and the thin mastering of the original record makes it sound even more reedy than normal. The CD mastering though is absolutely exemplary, and the warmer, thicker sound makes the album a much easier listen. Plus it has bonus tracks...

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