A unique singer-songwriter with a stately baritone voice and an unusually theatrical writing style, Ackles is all but forgotten these days. There are moments of brilliance in his catalog, particularly in the lyrics department…but the recordings don’t really hold up all that well today. He’s worth investigating, but hardly the lost legend of song-writing he’s sometimes painted as in “deep cut” music circles.
Subway To The Country *
Five And Dime
DAVID ACKLES (1968)
I’m going to start my review of Mr. Ackles’ debut album on a positive note: “Down River” is a gorgeous, sad, and powerful song! It’s probably the best individual composition of the man’s career, and the only tune of his that lends hardcore credulity to claims that he’s some sort of “lost genius of American song-writing.” Now for the bad stuff: the rest Mr. Ackles’ debut album is a yucky and dated affair full of amateurish playing and weak melodies. I’m not a fan of Ackles’ singing style – that stately baritone crooning thing – though as applied by folks like Scott Walker and David Bowie, I can get down. But on all four of his albums, Ackles sounds like he’s stretching himself vocally past his limitations – he mostly just sounds silly and old! This record opens with one of his more famous numbers, “The Road To Cairo,” a slow building bluesy organ-driven track that bores me to tears. I don’t find him a good enough melody writer or singer to support some of the giant epic gestures he puts on his records, and “Cairo” is an early example of Ackles attempting melancholic majesty and falling sadly flat. Some of the conversational lyrics seem particularly ham-fisted on that one – “Hey thanks for stopping, are you headed to Cairo?” – and the band just doesn’t get the build right. The organ tones don’t go beyond that boring late-60s heavy blues thing – I find it unimaginative when bands from this era use normal sounding organs as pivotal arrangement builders. The instrumentation would get a lot more exciting on David’s later records. Moving on…”When Love Is Gone,” is a corny melodramatic ballad that initiates a trademark on Ackles’ records – sad songs from the perspective of scorned or lonely or lost lovers. He saturates almost all of his love songs with that POV, and it’s no wonder he made a fan of Elvis Costello – in Ackles universe nearly all relationships lead to sadness and regret and resignation. Sometimes these songs work magically – as in “Down River” – but sometimes they just seems a bit obvious and cloying.There are some other minor successes on here – “What A Happy Day” smartly couples a seemingly positive lyric with a somber melody and arrangement, and thus invites further investigation as to the narrator’s actual emotional intentions while singing. “Sonny Come Home” is the first example of my favorite Ackles’ style – the baudy dark bitter Brel-ian one – though he’d better this kind of song on his follow-up full-length. “His Name Is Andrew” is another epic track – a 6 minute existential dirge with some very frightening lyrics – but I can barely make it through a minute of the thing. There’s simply not enough happening musically – the starkness suits the lyric, but at the expense of an interesting track. One more comment: the Elton John self-titled record owes a lot to some of this stuff (particularly “Blue Ribbons”).
SUBWAY TO THE COUNTRY (1970)
This is my favorite David Ackles record by a pretty large margin. The following record is routinely considered his masterpiece, but for me it’s too overblown. And I don’t think he ever MADE a masterpiece. But I find this one to be his most concise and consistently enjoyable work. It’s the least dated, the least maudlin, and the most varied. It’s just a solid singer-songwriter album and lacks the over-reaching qualities of the two records on either side of it. That isn’t to say it ain’t ambitious – it’s still got it’s share of melodrama and “big” gesturing. It’s just classier and rootsier. I also love how every song here shoots for a different genre and yet the whole thing manages to feel of a piece. I also love that, for whatever reason, Ackles seems more comfortable here than on his other records. There are only 8 songs and they’re all worthwhile, though the opening side of the record is particularly strong. You get the drunken barroom ranter “Main Line Saloon,” which is my pick for Ackles best ever vocal performances. He’s a lot better as a dirty haggard weirdo Americana singer than a mawkish love balladeer or “voice of the common man.” I enjoy the way he spits out that chorus hook of “Welcome to the Main Line Saloon,” and then the band drops into a brief drunken waltz figure. And by the way – the production and playing on this album destroys Ackles’ debut, and seems perfectly tailored for these songs. “That’s No Reason To Cry” is Ackles’ best sad love song after “Down River,” with a memorable melody and typical sorta Ackles lyric (my baby left me but I’m a big boy so I’ll get by and life goes on anyway, right babe) Then comes the darkest and weirdest song in the catalog – “Candy Man,” which has nothing to do with Willy Wonka or the Grateful Dead. Instead, it’s a haunting harpsichord and orchestra led theater-piece about a soldier who loses his arm in the war, returns home, opens a candy shop, and starts putting pornographic pictures in kids’ candy bags. I won’t ruin the ending for you, but it’s creepy as hell! That song more than any other shows me why Ackles has gained a bit of a cult following – he’s got a winningly warped darker streak that I wish he’d accessed more often. The first side ends with the moving epic ballad “Out On The Road” which is working with similar ideas to “The Road To Cairo,” but delivers ’em WAY better! Side 2 is a bit more problematic – I quite like the country murder ballad “Cabin on The Mountain,” and Ackles sings the shit out of it. But the jazzy and meandering “Woman River” is just too silly for me (with it’s extended metaphorical lyric comparing a river to a…woman!). And the album ends with the sweet title track – sweet if you’re kind, insufferably corny if you’re an asshole. I’m somewhere in between, but it’s not much of a song in either case. But that leaves the really exciting “Inmates of the Institution,” a totally weird and super theatrical narrative suite that moves from orchestrated musical theater sections to ones that are more rockingly upbeat. It’s got horns and strings and lots of neat ideas – it reminds me a bit of Peter Hammill. It’s overblown in a good way. This is the go-to Ackles album if you ask me!
AMERICAN GOTHIC (1972)
From its title to its orchestrations to its epic finale, it’s obvious this was supposed to be a big statement record from Ackles. And it HAS become his most famous and acclaimed work – it seems to overshadow his earlier albums to the point where most people don’t even worry about the rest of the man’s catalog and concentrate solely on this album. But I don’t think this is improvement on his previous work at all – it’s SO over the top and sometimes really boring. There are some fantastic pieces on here, but the album is mostly concerned with lyrics and epic arrangements and the songs themselves don’t have very interesting melodies. And there are some gaping problem spots that threaten to bring my rating even lower – but I can’t deny the ambition and craft that went into making this record. Lyrically Ackles has never been stronger – he concentrates mainly on crumbling American dreams and lost figures at the fringes of the country’s mainstream (a Native American, a “wild” girl, an aging drifter). It’s must be the lyrical focus that earns this album it’s biggest supporters, because musically it’s just not all that exciting. Take, for instance, the opening title track. It’s narrative describes a crumbling marriage, and the imagery is perfect, the phrasing impeccable – the last line is a total stunner. It’s one of the best songs on here and so lyrically brilliant (“It’s much too dark to the see the stranger so she thinks of shoes instead”) – but it hardly resonates at ALL for me in the melody department. Plus, Ackles’ singing sounds forced and it’s got generic orchestrated meandering blah-ness for an arrangement. Anyway, it’s a good overture – paints a sad and honest picture of American life – so where to next? Oh, only “Love’s Enough,” quite possibly the WORST song on the album, and one of Ackles’ cheesiest. Why did Ackles deem it useful to go from biting wit and layered imagery to totally sincere and unspecific love song lyrics RIGHT AWAY AT THE TOP OF HIS EPIC? It must have been for commercial reasons – the second song simply has no place on this record. Luckily, things pick back up again and there’s a bunch of other strong lyrics in the vein of the title track. “Ballad of The Ship Of State,” “Midnight Carousel,” and “Blues For Billy Whitecloud” are the best arranged numbers here and they hearken back to the darker weirder territories of the previous record. There are some more broken love songs (“One Night Stand,” “Waiting For The Moving Van”), a strangely straight-forward gospel song (“Family Band,”) and the Randy Newman-esque ragtime-y novelty tune “Oh, California!” The album concludes with an overlong, over-wrought, and insanely boring 10 minute story song called “Montana.” It’s the most annoying piece of music Ackles ever recorded, with a giant ham-fisted Copland-esque arrangement and a shitload of over-sung poetic lyrics. I’m sorry to be saying this – I certainly have nothing against the ambition here. But that track kills me – “Til I found what I came looking for” – yuck!!!! So this record is worth a listen for sure, and Ackles has a true gift with lyrical portraiture… but it’s not the classic I “came looking for.”
FIVE AND DIME (1973)
Ackles’ followup to “Gothic” seems to be forgotten even by his supporters – and after listening to it, I understand the reasons why! It opens with a nice run of 5 decent songs that point to new directions for the artist – simpler and shorter compositions with less lofty ambitions than the previous record…but also more subtle and varied in approach. Opener “Everybody Has A Story” is a decent Kurt Weill-esque tune that harkens back to “Main Line Saloon” from two album ago. It’s a bitter lyric, but Ackles seems to have his tongue firmly in cheek. Next up is one his better corny love ballads – “I’ve Been Loved” – which paints portraits of depressed or spent or bored individuals who claim to still cherish life solely due to once having felt loved. It’s similar in tone to some of the baroque Phil Ochs tracks, but it’s a lot less biting. Nonetheless, it’s still quite lovely and even moving if you can get into the utterly sincere vibe. Jazzy show-tune “Jenna Saves,” sounds the most like the previous record – it’s got the most interesting narrative and melody here as well as a great horn arrangement. Then comes the TOTALLY out of left field Beach Boys parody “Surf’s Down” which sounds like nothing else in Ackles’ short catalog. It makes no sense in the context of the man’s career, but it’s certainly refreshing to hear him try out a comedy number with lush harmonies and total goofiness. It feels like something you’d find on a Turtles album – and though it jumps out as a tasteless gaffe in some ways, I enjoy it’s sense of humor. The final acceptable song is the country-gospel “Berry Tree” – simple and well performed, though hardly up to the best Ackles had to offer. OK – so – the rest of this record? Maybe it’s just me, but to my ears everything from 6 – 12 absolutely stinks to high heaven! “One Good Woman’s Man” is the most boring song Ackles ever recorded – 4 and a half minutes of drone-y bullshit masquerading as music and the same sad love lyrics he’d written so many times before, but with less panache. “Run Pony Run” is an embarrassing and dated ecological song about saving nature from man’s evil hammer. “Aberfan” is a big bloated overwrought account of a natural disaster – it falls even flatter than “Montana” from the previous record and almost sounds like something from a Shatner album. The last 4 songs on the record are short and forgettable love ballads…they all suck. So this was not a fitting way to conclude the man’s career, and I think people would just like “American Gothic” to be his crowing achievement. This one can’t help but read as a footnote.