Orange crate art was a place to start/Orange crate art was a world apart…
Van Dyke Parks – composer, lyricist, arranger, producer, and all-around iconoclast – found inspiration in those familiar fruit crates painted with lovely, bucolic images of the fantasyland known as California. Having crafted a relaxed, loping melody, he was determined to set lyrics to it. The story goes that the first word he thought of was “orange.” While it isn’t easy to rhyme, it does stir at least four of the five senses. Orange crates spread a romanticized notion of a land of abundant sunshine and endless possibilities; perhaps Mississippi native Parks could ruminate on his adoptive state in song…or songs. Who possessed the quintessential California voice to bring them to life? The sonic auteur summoned his old friend and collaborator Brian Wilson to lend his voice and trademark harmonies. “Orange Crate Art” turned into Orange Crate Art. Now, that 1995 album – Parks and Wilson’s first collaborative effort since 1967’s abortive SMiLE but happily not their last – has received a beautiful 25th anniversary expanded edition from Omnivore Recordings.
From the gentle opening title track, the album unfolds with cinematic flair as a series of musical vignettes or snapshots. Parks’ words – typically dense, filled with striking and sometimes free-associative imagery and interior rhymes – conjure a Golden State fantasia. His memorable if often unconventional melodies draw on many rich strains of American popular song. Robustly sung by Wilson with shimmering, stacked multi-part harmonies (other vocalists including Three Dog Night’s Danny Hutton and Lion King “Circle of Life” singer Carmen Twillie do appear on the backgrounds of a few songs), “Orange Crate Art” takes listeners to the heart of wine country in Sonoma…what better to rhyme with aroma? It’s nostalgic, sure, with references to rocking chairs and barnyard gates, but also immediate. You can smell the ripe oranges or the wine “from the vine of a vintage cru.”
A tropical, steel drum-flecked invitation to “Sail Away” (“You go and get the telephone/Give it a real good yank and thank God we’re all alone in a tropical zone”) is swathed in the splendor of strings even as it evokes a wistful counterpoint to Wilson and Parks’ rocking entreaty to “Sail on Sailor” from two decades earlier. (The instruments throughout are as colorful as the lyrics, with hammer dulcimer, harmonica, trumpets, and more adding vibrancy.) “Orange Crate Art” offered a plea to “Hear the lonesome locomotion roar/Hobo hop on if you dare.” That thread reaches fruition on “My Hobo Heart,” one of three songs featuring words by Albert Hammond’s old songwriting partner Mike Hazlewood. Over swooning, intricate harmonies and impressive falsetto, Wilson adopts the role of a travelin’ man who succumbs to true love. The arrangement is tight and bright with keyboards bringing a breezy air.
Orange Crate Art is at its most carnival-esque on the swirling “Wings of a Dove,” on which the wordsmith Parks playfully brings the listener in again with the onomatopoeia of “the din tin tin tabulation” (for “tintinnabulation”). Wilson has a stunning, wordless vocal interlude on the yearning “Palm Tree and Moon;” whereas that song found him dropping a letter in a bottle in the sea (“I don’t know where it went so I sent to Sacramento/Said you were meant for me”), “Summer in Monterey” landed him on California’s central coast. A reflection of first love, it’s cited by Wilson as one of his favorites on the album, and it’s not hard to see why. Parks’ music and Hazlewood’s lyrics are imbued with the innocence and childlike sweetness that defines much of Wilson’s finest work. “My Jeanine” is another remembrance of love with a delightful streak of whimsy.
Another of Brian’s favorites, “San Francisco,” seemingly returns to the western milieu of SMiLE‘s “Heroes and Villains” when it starts with the a cappella exclamation “Time to giddy up! Do wah diddy up!” Featuring one of Wilson’s toughest vocals (“It’s pretty rockin’, you know,” he offers in the liner notes, and indeed, he even snarls some of the lyrics), the ever-shifting, rhythmic mini-suite of a song is packed with cultural allusions as it paints a portrait of a rough-and-tumble San Francisco very different than the ones Tony Bennett or Scott McKenzie sang about.
Perhaps the song that best encapsulates Orange Crate Art is “Hold Back Time.” Its sentiment is straight out of Tin Pan Alley (“Hold back time/Don’t talk about tomorrow/Tell that old clock on the wall he’ll just have to call it a day/Hold back time when we’re in each other’s arms/We’re in each other’s arms, so hold back time…”) but as affectingly sung by Wilson – who has experienced his share of well-publicized ups and downs – it’s achingly poignant. So is the escapist paean “Movies Is Magic,” which proclaims, “Movies is magic/Real life is tragic/I regret I gotta say/It is time we get away/to the movies and magic.” The simple yet profound message has never felt so relevant. A full orchestra is deployed for a touch of Max Steiner or Alfred Newman-esque Hollywood grandeur.
Mike Hazlewood penned both music and lyrics for “This Town Goes Down at Sunset,” a pretty, low-key tune that brings Orange Crate Art full circle, from its earlier call of “Sun up!” on “Sail Away” to sundown. It’s followed by a gorgeous grace note, a fully-orchestrated rendition of George Gershwin’s 1919 “Lullaby.” The hypnotic work is considered one of the Broadway tunesmith’s first “serious” pieces of music and later formed the basis of an aria in his 1922 one-act jazz opera Blue Monday, a precursor to Porgy and Bess. It’s an unexpected if altogether appropriate finale.
However, there’s an encore on Omnivore’s reissue. Three previously unreleased bonus tracks have been rescued from the vaults including two more Gershwin compositions. Brian, who has long cited the legendary composer as an inspiration, adds layered, wordless voices to the famous “Rhapsody in Blue” and delivers Ira Gershwin’s lyrics on a smooth and dreamy rendition of “Love Is Here to Stay” recorded for Warner Bros. honcho Mo Ostin and his wife Evelyn. The final bonus is Bob Thiele and George David Weiss’ anthem of hope, “What a Wonderful World.” Singing over spare keyboard accompaniment, Brian movingly shapes it into a close cousin of his own perennial concert closer, “Love and Mercy.”
The 25th anniversary edition, produced by Omnivore’s Brad Rosenberger, also adds a second disc reprising the entire original album stripped of Wilson’s soaring vocals. This mix is beguiling in its own way, shining a spotlight on Parks’ elaborate and ever-inventive arrangements as well as the talented musicians involved. Previously buried or less prominent flourishes from steel drums, sleigh bells, accordion, or Wilson’s signature bass harmonica rise to the surface on this disc. There isn’t enough room here to name them all – they’re listed in the digipak – but mention should be made of such top-drawer session vets as Grant Geissman and Fred Tackett (guitar) as well as Tommy Morgan (harmonica) and Dennis Budimir (drums), both of whom played on countless records with The Wrecking Crew. Morgan has even been credited with introducing Brian to the bass harmonica.
Though Brian Wilson didn’t compose any of the music on Orange Crate Art, his imprint is deeply felt on the album as he brought pure warmth to Parks’ deliciously complex musical creations. The album “is a continuum of that which stood, freeze-frame, at the release of SMiLE,” Van Dyke writes in his new liner notes. It’s a key part of a vibrant tapestry of Americana that runs through both artists’ solo albums: whether Parks’ Song Cycle (1967) and Discover America (1972) or Wilson’s That Lucky Old Sun (2008) and Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin (2010). That Lucky Old Sun revisited many of the themes on Orange Crate Art, and even features Parks’ spoken-word poetry interludes. On Reimagines Gershwin, Brian reinterpreted both “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Love Is Here to Stay.”
Shortly after the release of Orange Crate Art, Brian Wilson began working with Andy Paley on a group of songs that still haven’t yet been fully realized. (He tantalizingly admits in his liner notes, “I’d love to get back to those songs eventually, too.”) By 1998, he’d release the studio album Imagination with producer Joe Thomas and a new set of collaborators; within a couple of years he’d form the remarkable band with whom he’d triumphantly return to the concert stage. He and Parks would complete their long-lost masterpiece, SMiLE, in 2004.
Omnivore has afforded this grand, sweeping journey through the heart of both the Golden State and the United States the respect it deserves. Michael Graves’ subtle, quiet, and detailed remaster preserves all of the dynamics of the album while revealing nuances in vocals and instruments. The CD’s six-panel digipak and 16-page booklet designed by Greg Allen both honor the spirit of the original release. Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks’ Orange Crate Art is ripe for rediscovery.
Orange Crate Art is available now on CD and vinyl!