Friday, January 14, 2011

David Ackles and American Gothic

I was so ashamed.

Just before Christmas my friends on the internet were discussing the top ten albums that they had bought in 2010.I realised that apart from the bootlegs that friends had kindly sent to me i had only actually bought one album in 2010,(That was Long Gone Lonesome Blues by Thomas Fraser in case you're wondering)."Whats happened to me?",i asked myself.I remember back in the mid 70's i used to buy two albums a week.When i worked at Hotpoint in Peterborough i'd buy the NME every Thursday which was pay day and i'd get off the bus in Bridge Street and go to Andy's Records and buy whatever albums got the most stars in the reviews.I bought some quite naff albums i can tell you such as Deaf School or Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoiyos but occasionally a classic that i still enjoy today such as Kate And Anna McGarrigle.I suppose i had more disposable income in those far flung halcyon days when life was simpler before mortgages and Council Tax etc and lived at home for about £15.00 a week.

Anyway, to cut to the chase i resolved that i would buy at least ten CD's this year so at the end of the year i could tell everyone what my favourite ten buys of the year were.But what to buy?.I didn't want to get Mumford & Sons or any other modern new stuff because thats just stepping on the bandwagon.I wanted a rare gem from the past that i had missed first time round.I am always interested in artists who lived in obscurity and are only discovered decades later or after they are dead or had a brief flirtation with fame and disappeared,people like Anne Briggs,Jonathan Kelly,Vashti Bunyan Karen Dalton etc.I vaguely remembered my friend Fred years ago mentioning an album called American Gothic by David Ackles.Later i had read that Elton John and Elvis Costello had hailed it as a masterpiece.I don't take much notice of what Elton John says but i certainly respect what Elvis Costello has to say.So on New Years Eve i looked it up on ebay and you could only get old vinyl copies in the UK but you could get new CD copies from Canada so because i was in a jolly mood i bought one and exactly two weeks later American Gothic hit my doormat.

I looked at the front cover and it was a man sitting in a boat and a woman sitting on the porch of a timber framed house.On the back cover she is wearing denim overalls and he is holding a garden fork which creates the feeling of a rural life in the olden days.(Later when i was looking for pictures to illustrate this review i found it was based on a famous picture called American Gothic by Grant Wood that i never had heard of either so this is quite educational!,see picture at top)I didn't know what to expect.I hoped it might be a bit like Astral Weeks or maybe a bit like a Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks collaboration.I also feared it might be a piece of pretentious overblown crap!.Reading the liner notes i was very surprised to find it was actually recorded in England and produced by Bernie Taupin."Aha",i thought,"Thats why Elton said it was a masterpiece,the devious bastard".I also noted that most of the musicians were from the London Symphony Orchestra and there were 3 backing singers of Doris Troy,Madeleine Bell and Lesley Duncan who were probably the best female session singers in England at that time.Anyway, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and i slid the CD into the machine.

I got a piece of paper and decided to write down whatever came into my head.As the eponymous opening track started i see i had written Brel,Scott Walker,Randy Newman.I immediately realised that i had bought something the likes of which i had never bought before.His voice had nothing to do with rock music or folk.It sounded like musical theatre, like Oklahoma or something like that,a genre of music that i had never liked and avoided.As the album progressed though i realised that his music transcended the boundaries between styles.There were elements of classical,music hall and folk.You will see what i mean when you listen to the music at the end.The opening track was about this couple called Molly and Horace Jenkins who couldn't stand the sight of each other but put up with it which a lot of people do.Poor old Horace reads in a half filled bed but is so ashamed of what he's reading that he gets drunk instead.The second track i found initially the most accessable 'Loves Enough' which is a really nice love song with the traditional song form that i am used to.I could tell that this bloke was not a great singer his forte was obviously as a songwriter and arranger and to make up for the blandness of his voice there are lots of changes in tempo and mood to keep the interest but the beauty is in the poignancy of the lyrics.Loves Enough could have been a huge hit if recorded by somebody with a really distinctive voice.Tom Waits springs to mind with 'One Night Stand',if he sang this song it would be brilliant.Another Friday Night is a great song.

But I hold on to my dreams, anyway,

I'll never let them die.

they keep me going through the bad times

while I dream of the good times coming by.

It is a beautiful sad song.On first listen, i didn't like Midnight Carousel much.I think at this point i said to Kim "What do you think of this album?","I don't like it",she replied."Why not?",I enquired,"It's morbid", she answered.Anyway, don't let that put you off, i value her opinion as much as Elton John's..'Waiting For The Moving Van' is a beautiful sad song as is 'Blues For Billie Whitehead'.

The tour de force on the whole album is 'Montana Song which is a 10 minute epic and worth the price of the whole album.I must say it has shades of Van Dyke Parks,also American Pie, in the sadness of loss,It is all about discovering an abandoned farm and reading the gravestones of a pioneer family etc.I thought it was only the Irish who cared about the love of the land like this but this is a great song and the arrangements are truly epic.This is classical music and if somebody put it on the stage i think the whole album would make a great musical.This classic needs to be discovered.

Apparently, this album flopped when it was released in 72 and David Ackles was dropped by Electra his record company, he made one more album and then disappeared, dying of cancer about 10 years go.It would be great if his work got the recognition it deserves I heartily recommend this album but if you don't like it don't blame me.I have a good idea that come December this will be one of my top ten albums of the year!.

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