An exciting, slightly confusing package arrived for me last week, addressed to John Mulvey at Melody Maker; a magazine which hasn’t existed for, what, eight years, and which, in any case, I never worked for. Beneath the address, though, was a tantalising tagline: “Compliments of Van Dyke Parks”.
Parks, I guess, is entitled to get the name of my workplace wrong. I can’t pretend to be intimate with the great man, though I did spend an hour or two at his house in LA in 1995, being shown paintings by what seemed to be an obscure school of Californian impressionists, and trying to get him to spill the beans about “Smile”.
This was around the time of his underrated collaboration with Brian Wilson, “Orange Crate Art”, and I spent the next day up at Wilson’s house, a marvellous and strange time which culminated in him playing a medley of “Surfer Girl” and “Satisfaction” at the piano, noticing that my tape recorder was still running, then offering me $100 to get the track on the radio.
I digress. Parks, I think, has contributed some lyrics to the new Brian Wilson album, “That Lucky Old Sun”, which arrived at Uncut this week (I need to listen to it some more, but in the meantime here’s my review of the piece’s live premier last year). But the package didn’t contain that, and, in fact, came from an LA label called Everloving rather than Parks himself. Smart move, there.
The record turned out to be the new album from Inara George, Lowell George’s daughter and an artist whose previous work (including the somewhat twee electropop Bird And The Bee project with Greg Kurstin) hasn’t really grabbed me much. This time, though, she has enlisted Van Dyke Parks – a presence in her life from birth, thanks to his closeness to her father – to provide orchestral settings for her songs.
There are two obvious contemporary models for “An Invitation”. One is Joanna Newsom’s “Ys”, or at least the lavish, quixotic arrangements which Parks created for the songs on that record. George’s songs are not much like those of Newsom: there are no roots in folk here, and her style is more jaded boho than elevated poet. But the way George and her songs act as a still, emotional centre while Parks’ flighty score darts around them is highly reminiscent of “Ys”.
The second reference is Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine”, with a similar twisted showtune feel to some of the songs – though George avoids the breakbeats and harrowing confessional tone of that fine record. Nevertheless, it’s sometimes hard to spot George’s character here: her songs aren’t always entirely memorable (though they’re growing stronger with each listen, in fairness), and there’s a sense that Parks is stealing the show with his endlessly inventive chamber pop.
When it all works together, though, this is a really lovely record. There’s a run of songs towards the end of the album which are strong and satisfying, but the best comes at the start, after Parks’ “Overture”. It’s called “Right As Wrong”, and it finds George’s quizzical LA hipster setting out her tentative, playful, touching dreams: “I want to have regrets, because I want to do absolutely all I can,” she sings, and the prettiness and ambition of “An Invitation” come right into focus.