A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: Third solo album by peripatetic singer, songwriter, arranger and former Brian Wilson collaborator. Released 1975 on Warner Brothers Records. Features bass playing by equally well-traveled pop cult hero Klaus Voorman. Failed to chart in any city, state, country or other jurisdiction I know of.
And here’s why I like it:
1. It’s a Van Dyke Parks album. Van Dyke Parks albums, especially his early ones, are like platypi — rare, sometimes bizarre, charming in a quirky way, and totally different from everything surrounding them.
His first, 1968’s Song Cycle, featured wild, fantastical arrangements; lyrics so allusive as to be Nabokovian; and Parks’ distinctive voice, which could easily belong to a foppish Muppet in top hat and monocle. The album credits listed two guitarists and six balalaika players. The record, while critically praised, did not sell.
Then came 1972’s Discover America, made up entirely of cover versions reflecting Parks’ fascination with Caribbean calypso and steel-band sounds. It too did not sell, though it briefly crept onto the playlist of a single station in Tucson, Arizona, which by VDP standards is a measurable triumph.
Clang of the Yankee Reaper also features a horn-and-steel-drum sound, with occasional side trips — such as an all-too-brief piano-and-vocal sojourn into “You’re A Real Sweetheart,” a pre-Depression pop nugget so old you can watch YouTube videos of player pianos playing it. (Old American songcraft is almost as much a Parks fascination as steel drums.)
When an artist averages one album every three-and-a-half years, you’d think that artist would make at least some concessions to commercialism just to get another shot at the studio. VDP, in contrast, remained so focused on his own unique vision that he makes garden-variety mavericks like Neil Young look like Ace of Base. And who can’t find love in their heart for a pop individualist, even one who sings like a foppish Muppet?
2. Some mall-based music store lost money on it. I’ve always hated mall CD stores, as most of them seem to combine high prices and poor selection. If the age of the MP3 kills mall music stores, it will be a loss only to the handful of slack-jawed teens still being paid to mumble numbly, “Naw, we don’t have that.”
I’ve tried to avoid mall music stores. But I did make a score at one such store — I forget where it was — maybe 15 years ago, when I discovered Clang of the Yankee Reaper being sold for something like $3.99 in a cutout/bargain bin.
I doubt the manager had any idea who Van Dyke Parks was. I imagined him telling the clerk, “Uhhhh, we got a shipment of the new Poison live album coming in. We gotta make room in the P’s. Find someplace to put this shit, would you?”
(Actually, I would find it equally believable if the manager said: “Uhhhh, we got a shipment of the new Van Halen live album coming in. We gotta make room in the V’s. Find someplace to put this shit, would you?”)
3. Clang. It would be wrongheaded to describe Clang’s title track as the best Beach Boys song that didn’t make it onto SMiLE. Parks’ solo work deserves to stand or fall on its own, without always being tied to his more famous collaborations with Brian Wilson.
I’d definitely recommend the song to anyone who enjoys SMiLE, though. It’s cut from similar cloth with its droll wordplay, cinematic arrangement and languid, memorable chorus.
(In particular, the phrase “Hearken to the clang of the Yankee reaper” deserves to hang alongside the more celebrated “Columnated ruins domino” in the American Museum of Impressionistic Lyrics.)
As a side note, I find it astonishing that Mariano Rivera chose “Enter Sandman” as his entrance song when he could have had “Clang of the Yankee Reaper” instead. Perhaps the next generation of pinstriped relief pitchers will pick up on this ready-made anthem.
4. “Iron Man.” No, it’s not the Black Sabbath song. It’s a catchy calypsonian chestnut about a woman who can’t get enough steel drumming … probably the only song you’ll ever hear to use pans as a metaphor for sex.
Parks sings it with all the elan he can muster. You imagine the foppish Muppet throwing off his top hat, loosening his tie and shimmying back and forth in the tiki torchlight as he tells the tale of his conquest (“How can you beat iron so, sweet Parksie?”)
Unfortunately, this song isn’t on YouTube. I’d love to link to it, because it’s infectious, and if there were a hit single on Clang this would have been it.
I’d also hoped to link to it to get my readers’ opinion on something that’s dogged me. There’s a female backing vocalist who sounds distinctly like Joni Mitchell, particularly on one line (“…that they call Iron Charlie”) where she swoops up and becomes more audible. Joni’s not credited, and I know of no reason why it might be her, and it probably isn’t. That line always tweaks my ear and makes me wonder, though.
5. Out on a high note. The closing track is listed as “Cannon in D” and credited to Pachelbel. But it’s not a canon (or a cannon); it’s not by Pachelbel; and according to Wiki it’s not in D, either. Presumably the track listing is some sort of in-joke.
What the song is is a funky instrumental treatment of the 16th-century hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” sounding like it was played by the Grambling marching band at halftime of the Port-au-Prince Bowl.
It’s a charming and totally random end to a charming and totally random album. Shame VDP wouldn’t make another one for nine years.