Discs: Van Dyke Parks, the partnership of Carla Bley and Steve Swallow and Neko Case - The Buffalo News
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Discs: Van Dyke Parks, the partnership of Carla Bley and Steve Swallow and Neko Case


Van Dyke Parks

Songs Cycled

[Bella Union]

3½ stars

Eccentric he certainly is. Legendary as well. “Genius” he may well be. But let’s not complicate matters too much. It’s very simple really. Honest.

Imagine what might have happened if Randy Newman had decided that his true mission in life was to marry the Midwestern Parisian surrealism of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein to the razor ironies of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in a ceremony performed by Frank Zappa. And then imagine that he and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson then spent month after month listening to Latin American music from calypso to tango to Lord knows what.

Wait. We’re not finished yet. Imagine that a lunatic mishmash disc of all that in his songs was sung in a voice that sounded like Matthew Broderick singing Mel Brooks’ songs in “The Producers” in melodies reimagined by Sir Arthur Sullivan.

So there you have it. Easy as pie. Just your everyday pop music disc.

Or not.

That’s sort of how you might get this new disc by Van Dyke Parks named in memory of his legendary 1968 disc “Song Cycle.” Parks – a great and nutty legend and recluse of American music who makes the late Harry Nilsson seem like Glen Campbell – has released all of his 21st century 7-inch singles on one disc that he claims will probably be his last for reasons of both money and health.

It’s his first since “Orange Crate Art” eight years ago.

Are you ready for “The Aquarium” from Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” performed by a Trinidadian steel band? Or a brilliantly blithe ballad about oil spills called “Black Gold” that conflates such modern maritime cargo with the 19th century slave trade?

“There is nothing but ash in the air and confetti all covered with blood” he sings about life on “Wall Street” in a jolly calypso. “The All-Golden” sounds like a neo-quaker hymn. And yes, of course, there is a 9/11 song.

You can’t even say that this is where pop song and art song meet. This is art song plain and simple but it is well within the grasp and the frame of reference of the most sophisticated pop music ears.

The only caveat, of course, is that this is not a disc to be heard only once or twice. To fully sink in it needs quite a few hearings.

Pray that Parks’ fiscal and physical health allow him to keep on going. The shock of hearing a new disc like this in the current musical landscape is irreplaceable.

– Jeff Simon


Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow



3½ stars

The Swallow Quintet

Into the Woodwork


3 stars

Was there ever a jazz family designed with more perfect symmetry than the life and musical partnership of Carla Bley and Steve Swallow? I don’t think so.

Bley is a sublime jazz composer. One could well argue that she may be the greatest living jazz composer. Her only competition would be Ornette Coleman, Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter. (I’m fond of Sonny Rollins’ tunes too, but that’s another thing.)

No one would ever claim she is a great jazz pianist or organist. She is wonderful doing both but only because she is a musician of extraordinary melodic gifts and great wit. (Who else would be likely to comp for a soloist by playing the old “Quiet Village” motif from the heyday of Tiki Lounge music?)

Swallow is a truly great jazz bass player and musical mind, but he is in possession of nothing close to his partner’s gifts as a composer.

You can find their great partnership on terrific exhibit on these two discs. To hear the classic opening composition on Bley’s “Trios” disc with Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard – called “Utviklingssang” – is to instantly hear that she is a balladic melodist almost up there with the Duke Ellingtons and Billy Strayhorns and John Lewises of the jazz world. Because there is no drummer on the disc – shades of Swallow’s old employer Jimmy Giuffre – the whole disc is intoxicated by melody at deliberate tempo, with all fire taken care of in the playing of saxophonist Andy Sheppard.

The compositions on the wittily titled “Into the Woodwork” are all Swallow’s. They’re serviceable but no more. Bley plays organ. The major soloists are tenor saxophonist Christ Cheek and guitarist Steve Cardenas while Brad Mehldau’s drummer Jorgy Rossy is ideal for them all. A good quintet but the chamber trio on “Trios” is the Bley/Swallows family at its best.



Earl Sweatshirt



3½ stars

“Why are you so depressed and sad all the time?” Earl Sweatshirt is asked by his good friend Vince Staples near the start of “Doris,” the 19-year-old Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All rapper’s long-awaited debut album. “Don’t nobody care how you feel, we want raps.”

And there’s a part of Earl – real name Thebe Neruda Kgositsile – who wants to give the people the blood-and-guts narratives they want, too. But the most technically adept, naturally talented rapper of the incendiary Odd Future crew also wants to rap about his “daddy issues” concerning his father, the African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile. And to rhyme about the complexities of his relationships with follow OF luminaries Frank Ocean, who guests, and raps, on “Sunday,” and Tyler, the Creator. And to confess that he feels “too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks / From honor roll to cracking locks off them bicycle racks.”

In other words, he’s a complicated, still-growing-up kid who, despite his claims that “I’m indecisive, I’m scatterbrained, and I’m frightened” has shown the artistic self-confidence to make a boldly introspective, musically challenging record. In doing so, he gives the hip-hop heads not what they want, but what they just might need.

—Dan DeLuca,

Philadelphia Inquirer


Neko Case

“The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You”


3 stars

The title of Neko Case’s eighth solo album is unwieldy but apt: Many of these songs come from a place of anger, frustration or depression – quite different from the love songs that were the core of her last album, 2009’s “Middle Cyclone.” The almost a cappella “Near Midnight, Honolulu” recounts an incident of uncalled-for verbal abuse of a child; the eerie, mysterious “Bracing for Sunday” involves incest and murder. On “Man,” Case uses her powerful, forthright voice to undermine gender expectations; it’s a combative power-pop gem that sounds closer to her work in the New Pornographers than anything she’s done before. (Several of her NP bandmates help out on the album, as do members of My Morning Jacket and Calexico).

“The Worse Things Get” is wrenching and discomforting, but there’s love here, in “Calling Cards,” and there’s beauty, in “Night Still Comes,” in a cover of that other Nico’s “Afraid,” and in virtually every note that Case sings.

– Steve Klinge,

Philadelphia Inquirer

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