Review: Inara George with Van Dyke Parks, An Invitation

The Inara George/Van Dyke Parks partnership on An Invitation is a wonderful symbiosis, an amphibian that treads through two almost opposing elements, one stark and timid, the other well-crafted and delicate, though I’m not always sure which is which. The latter is usually the musical arrangement by Van Dyke Parks, so after listening to the opening number, “Overture,” with its instrumental loveliness pouring out all over the place, I nearly wrote something stupid like “this album is better than Smile!” Well, it’s not: but with its lush yet spare strings and woodwinds, it definitely bests Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, slash your throat out!).

It’s to Van Dyke Parks’ credit that he can arrange such sonorous and American music without sounding like an incidental tune from Oklahoma. But he’s obviously been helped by the fortified framework Inara’s given him to build from. Van Dyke Parks is an orchestrator of the most lovingly dogged kind, sticking his notes daintily but steadfastly to the tunes as Inara wrote them. And while they are not precious, the songs definitely are charming, the accents and crescendos cleverly woven around her meandering, slightly jazzy vocals, which bring to mind Julie London’s phrasing and Regina Spektor’s throaty beauty.

And the embossment of that beauty with buzzing cellos, creaky concertinas, and trilling mandolins sometimes has the same vibe as another Spector I could mention. An Invitation recalls the feel of a pre-Woodstock sixties studio classic, when all you needed was love, a flower, and a philharmonic orchestra. And like the California dreaming of those days, here the pretty songs are not always matched with pretty sentiments. Inara lets us know right away in “Accidental” that there’s some darkness ahead when she begs us to answer, “Where’s the knife, where’s the fire? Am I a saint, or a liar?”

Now, things here aren’t perhaps as foreboding as, say, Love’s Forever Changes—though “Tell Me That You Love Me” does portray a stalker finding her beloved’s address by stealing his mail, then hiding out in his car. Sometimes the strings and things even skip along with Inara’s voice like a Doris Day tune (not surprising, since ol’ Van used to be in cahoots with Day’s son, Terry Melcher). But there’s also some Nick Drake in this thing, and some Joni Mitchell, and some Dionne Warwick, and some anti-war sentiment, and some baroque pop. This is probably me just being a record geek, but track six, “Dirty White,” seems to aim for the sparse magic of the Beau Brummels’ haunting Triad album. You’d swear to God this album was recorded in the Sixties if it weren’t for the fantastic fidelity, the total lack of drums and guitars, and the occasional honk of “Hall of the Mountain King” French horns.

You can tell Van Dyke Parks put every bit of his skill and musical knowledge into this album. And maybe that’s because he knows it’s Inara’s trial by fire, something she herself seems both to know and to fear (thus all the lyrics about speaking without sound, or her words floating into nothingness like balloons, or her voice being snatched by ghosts). Fire of all types permeates the lyrics of her songs, not the least of which is the timely “Bomb,” in which she’s “chopping up our home for firewood.” Even fire flies and the dangers of fiery damnation through sin make their knobby-kneed appearances here and there.

Yet, by album’s end, we start to see how heat can bind people as well as burn them. The emptiness and abandonment crackling in the album’s first songs transforms into a beacon from a lighthouse in “Rough Design,” then into a fireplace overgrown with love in “Family Tree.” It’s hard to pin one simple outcome or ray of hope onto this album, but one does walk away feeling one’s seen some hurt and tenderness, but some kindness too, a feeling that everything’s going to be alright. In a time when it feels like the whole world is just starting to crawl out of the abyss, maybe that’s something we need more than ever.

Inara George w/Van Dyke Parks @ Largo
Sat 9/13