Friday, November 19, 2010

Jahnke's Record Collection: Van Dyke Parks - Discover America

And we’re back!

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted one of these blog entries. I apologize to those of you who were just starting to get into them. Part of the delay had to do with this year’s Hell Plaza Oktoberfest for The Digital Bits, which effectively wipes out all other projects for the entire month of October. But besides that, Jahnke’s Record Collection had fallen victim to something that happens quite a bit with me. I was overthinking it. I had an idea for an entry back in September which would have been a year-by-year look at albums that had shaped my life since my birth. I still think it’s a neat idea. It’s also ridiculously ambitious and pretty far afield from my original concept for the Record Collection blogs.

So I’m gonna try this again, hopefully on a more consistent basis this time. For those of you who may have forgotten the original idea (like I obviously did), it’s quite simple. Every week, I select an album completely at random from my collection, give it a few listens, then write up my impressions of it, history with it, and in a few cases, attempt to justify why I bought it in the first place and hung on to it all these years. As you may have guessed from the image up above, this week’s entry is Discover America by Van Dyke Parks. And as is the case with several of my albums, my history with this one begins with a list.

I’m a sucker for lists. I love making them and I love reading them. When Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly does a list issue, I’m the first to pore over it with a fine toothcomb. I’m also often the first to throw the magazine across the room in disgust. Lists like these are put together by committee. They rarely surprise you or lead you to discover anything you wouldn’t eventually have found on your own. Personal lists, on the other hand, can be a different story. Film Comment, I believe, runs or used to run an annual best-of issue. I always found the most interesting part to be the section devoted to the personal favorites of various critics and filmmakers. This is where you can learn something about the person compiling the list and hear about titles that would otherwise have flown beneath your radar.

Several years ago, Elvis Costello did a list of his 500 essential albums for Vanity Fair. I don’t remember the exact wording. It may have been “essential” or “favorite” or something else entirely. At any rate, it was one of the most interesting and eclectic album lists I’d ever seen before or since. He covered a wide range of genres, including classical, jazz, country, hip-hop and, of course, rock & roll. The list included such out of left field choices as An Evening With Groucho Marx and Noel Coward’s HMV Recordings. Needless to say, the idiosyncratic nature of the list appealed to me and I went on a mission to find as many of these albums as I could.

One of the albums was Van Dyke Parks’ Discover America. I knew Parks’ name from his work with The Beach Boys and Harry Nilsson but had no idea he was a recording artist in his own right. This also happened to be during the heyday of Napster, so it was no problem to jump online and download a song or two to get a taste. Unlike apparently most of the world, I would actually use Napster to help me decide whether or not I wanted to buy an album. I’d get a couple songs and, if I liked them, I’d go buy the album. So if your name is Van Dyke Parks, don’t sue me for downloading one of your tunes. It actually led to a sale you wouldn’t have got otherwise.

Anyway, the song I selected was a little ditty called “Jack Palance”, which I obviously chose because of the name. It was absolutely not what I was expecting. It’s a short and sweet calypso number and despite being barely a minute long, it made me grin uncontrollably. It was just fun. I enjoyed it a lot but half assumed it was a goof. It would sort of be like if you heard The Beatles’ “Maggie May” and assumed it was representative of Let It Be. So I was very surprised when I bought Discover America and learned that yes, in fact the entire album is like that one song. It’s a warm, jaunty calypso record and most of the songs are only about two or three minutes in length.

In addition to Jack Palance, Parks’ subjects include Bing Crosby, J. Edgar Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and The Mills Brothers. But the high point begins with a cover of Allen Toussaint’s “Occapella” and continues with “Sailin’ Shoes” and “Riverboat”. It’s a string of great, infectious songs and if they don’t make you happy, you may want to see a shrink. Get on some antidepressants or something, man, because this is fun, fun stuff.

I was pleasantly surprised that in 1972, the year of Watergate and so much other turmoil, a nostalgically happy album called Discover America was released. It does not surprise me that it seems to remain something of a cult record cherished only by a handful of people. I don’t know anyone who actively dislikes calypso music, although I suppose it’s possible. But I also don’t know many people who like it enough to groove to an entire album of it. A lot of people seem to look at it as background music, enjoyable enough if it’s there but not something they seek out. Their loss. Discover America is a burst of tropical sunshine on a cloudy day and it makes me smile every time I put it on.