Mark Smotroff turns on his mind, relaxes and floats down stream…

When I first read that there would be a new Van Dyke Parks (VDP) collaboration recording coming out I got excited. When I learned the cover art was being created by Klaus Voormann, I started buzzing. Then, when I first heard the advance CD, I was mesmerized both by Veronica Valerio’s voice, the strong melodies within and how VDP wove wonderfully unconventional yet somehow traditional, haunting orchestral arrangements in and around it all.   

I have since played Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America many times and realize that what is especially exciting about this music is that it bridges cultures with one foot in the past and another in the future. While it sounds very much like VDP, because of the collaboration it all feels fresh.

It is important to recognize that this album was crafted during the pandemic, making its creation extra special, not only breaking down cultural barriers but also breaking down the walls of isolation. In VDP’s words: “This is a shared vision of what America is all about. I’m trying to learn how to cross the aisles in my work and I’m exploring with the freedom that Verónica has allowed me.”

Verónica Valerio is a singer, songwriter and harpist born in Veracruz, Mexico. There she studied music and later in New York. She has lectured at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. She has performed her music around the world, anchored in the son jarocho musical style.  According to the Wiki this: “represents a fusion of Spanish (Andalusian and Canary Islander) and African musical elements, reflecting the population which evolved in the region from Spanish colonial times.”

This is all really important as Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America sounds quite unlike any Spanish language recording I’ve heard before, yet it sounds familiar at the same time. It has elements of styles I have heard but ultimately there is a distinctive ebb and flow, perhaps due to to Valerio’s vocal phrasing and harp playing which VDP responded to in collaboration. From the press materials, again we gain some insight to their approach from VDP:

“We got this record done with a fabulous group of string players — all long-distance. In quarantine! In isolation! She would send me a voice and a harp. Or maybe voice, harp and percussionist or violinist. And I would surround that with a chamber orchestra — seven strings, five woodwinds, so forth. Amazing adventure for me.”

And it is this adventuresome spirit where VDP’s arrangements lift off into the stratosphere, making this music at times sound like a soundtrack to an alternate universe version of Disney’s Coco. I mean that in the best possible way (I loved Coco!)

“Cielito Lindo,”with its periodic hip hop-esque beat-drops could be a dance track in a perfect world.  “The Flight Of The Guacamaya” has a lovely lilt and the hook on “Camino A Casa” could be a hit. While opening track “Veracruz” felt to me like a love letter to Ary Barrosa’s classic “Brazil,” it was actually written years earlier by Agustín Lara (I learned something new today!) 

VDP has explored this creative approach over the years, no doubt, but this collaboration is even more outside the box than others I’ve heard (a good thing!).  For those of you who know VDP’s albums, imagine if Spanish-leaning songs like “Palm Desert” and “Public Domain” (from 1967’s Song Cycle) went on a deep cruise along the coast of Mexico.  

You can also hear hints of this on his 2019 collaboration with Gaby Moreno called Spangled! but even that feels a bit reigned in, tied to time and space. Tracks like “Wedding In Madagascar” and “Money Is King” from 2013’s fabulous Songs Cycled pre-echo this direction where the vocals dance around the time signatures like a jazz musician improvising around the song’s changes (click here for my review of that fine album). 

This music on Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America  is at times even more whimsical and percolating, sweeping you along like if Thelonious Monk was bounding down a rapids in Rio Bravo del Norte in a tire tube while playing along to Charlie Parker With Strings.

Indeed, (in the words of their press release) Parks “plays” an orchestra in his role as arranger.”  As someone who studied under Aaron Copland, collaborated with Brian Wilson and arranged for no less than  Harry Nilsson, Little Feat, Ry Cooder and Joanna Newsom, Van Dyke Parks has few peers in this universe.  He has scored and acted in numerous film and TV projects and even conducted The Kronos Quartet in a live performance of the acclaimed Big Star’s Third concert tour. 

Parks own recordings are a template for this always-expect-the-unexpected musical mindset — his music is gloriously melodic, ever-surprising structurally and always compelling lyrically.  

And it is at this crossroads of highly individualistic orchestral composition and internationally grounded pop song craft that makes Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America such a joy.  And, if these two artists can create four songs of such beauty working together remotely, just imagine what may happen if they hopefully get together in person to flesh out a full album experience.

Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America is being released this week by BMG/Modern Recordings and will be available as a 10-inch vinyl EP as well as digitally.  My copy of the EP came perfectly centered, dead quiet and spinning at 45 RPM so it sounds quite lovely. You can also hear this music up on Qobuz streaming in 24-bit, 48-kHz HiRes format (click here) and on Tidal in MQA format (click here).

Finally, here is some sweet icing on the cake. As I mentioned earlier, Klaus Voormann designed the cover art. Yes, this is the same Klaus Voorman who designed The Beatles’ Revolver album cover — for which he won a Grammy that year! — and played on numerous solo Beatles releases!  I didn’t realize until now that he also designed the cover for VDP’s 2019 collaboration with Gaby Moreno, ¡Spangled! .

To some of you this may not seem like a big deal, but as a fan of both artists who come from different sides of the planet and the music world — Voormann initially emerging into public view from the Beatle-verse (if you will) and VDP from the West Coast/Beach Boys scene — it is pretty fantastic when you learn that they are friends.  And that sort of connectivity kind of fits perfectly in the global village within this album. (Note: special thanks to VDP for providing Audiophile Review with this wonderful photo of the two artists together!)

You should get Van Dyke Parks Orchestrates Verónica Valerio: Only in America.  Scroll down for some samples of their music.


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