hen I was younger, the oft-discussed trail to my grandparents’ house led me through the Northern reaches of the Mississippi River (and yes, over plenty of hills and though a few woods,) an area that never failed to emanate a distinct and mysterious allure. What I saw for those few dozen miles was a ghostly past skewered through the cracked wire frames of modernity. The lawn ornaments that outlined dilapidated riverside homes weren’t like the ones back home; they beckoned you with a frightened sorrow. I often pondered whether or not drifters roamed the woods. Sure, it sounds a bit more grand that it really was-- time has shown me that plenty of this could simply be attributed to abject poverty-- but what my imagination showed me were the landscapes of Twain and the characters of Dock Boggs sold through convenience stores, and the vision has never really left me. Although it was recorded years before this, these notions are the basis of David Ackles’ stunning American Gothic, a record born of rusty fences and rainy backroads that leads deep into a twisted Americana that is rarely documented in our lifetime.
A former Vaudeville performer, Illinois-born Ackles was hired by Elektra Records in the mid-1960s as a paid songwriter, a job that ultimately landed him a five-record deal that would yield this Bernie Taupin produced album, among three others. It was this unlikely clash of anachronistic show business and modern-day lyricism that so deeply informs his recorded output. Alternately calling to mind Hoagy Charmichael, Irving Berlin, Robbie Robertson, Tim Hardin, and Scott Walker, Ackles forged an utterly unique sound out of stray parts that comprise a whole that is as uncompromising as it is unrivaled. Nearly entirely eschewing the singer-songwriter staple of guitar, Ackles favors an elliptical piano that weaves itself around the moaning “high school” horns that were so memorably employed by the Band on their self-titled record. It’s a fascinating move that only adds to the wheezy candor of his songs, and gives Ackles room to dig deeper into the subjects at hand.
The disorienting swirl of the opening title track sets the template for much of the rest of the album, with Ackles’ sweeping delivery and rich lyricism taking center stage. “As he snuggles down to his reading in a half-filled married bed/he’s so ashamed of what he’s reading that he gets blind drunk instead” Ackles intones with a theatrical trill on the last syllable. His voice is that of a person who looks at his subjects from afar with unusual compassion. The jazz-hall sway of “Blues For Billy Whitecloud” is the most direct portrait here, detailing the plight of a young Native American’s descent into alcoholism. Whereas others at the time would furnish the song with little more than a lilting acoustic guitar and somber voice (a la Don McLean’s “Vincent”), Ackles plays his blues with a devilish swagger, employing a sly clarinet to augment his rambling barroom piano. This Vaudevillian influence rears its head with even more hubris on “Oh, California!”, an imaginary centerpiece in the most joyously warped musical that never was.
Even on more conventional fare like the touching “Love’s Enough”, “Another Friday Night” and “Waiting For The Moving Van”, Ackles exhibits a commanding presence that still stands to be reckoned with. Yet, nevertheless, it is his more explorative work that highlights American Gothic. The eerie “Midnight Carousel”, with its repetitive piano and seemingly possessed vocals, descends into the aforementioned woods, where a creaky violin opens an old fence, exposing the heady surrealism that the record so often hints at. As the ten-minute “Montana Song” brings the proceedings to a satisfyingly cinematic close, the breadth of Ackles’ singular vision is truly felt. Despite the occasional drags and lulls where he appears to be pleasing himself more than his listeners, the overall success of the album is palpable long after the last notes are heard, a hallmark of any fine LP.
And yet, this vision is one that is so seldom rewarded with praise. Although Elton John (and later Elvis Costello) was an outspoken proponent of Ackles’ work, it charted poorly and he was unceremoniously dropped from Elektra following American Gothic. After another failed attempt under Columbia (1973’s Five & Dime), Ackles permanently halted his recording career in favor of jobs in film and theater; after a lengthy bout with lung cancer, he died on March 2, 1999, still the cult artist that many wished he wouldn’t terminally remain. Hopefully, today’s revisionist listening culture will be kind to him, something that Collector’s Choice is hoping to catalyze with a recent reissuing of all five of his studio outings. As of right now, there’s no telling whether or not Ackles will become as standardized as his forebears and post-cursors, but what does mass acceptance mean, anyway? It’s the music that matters, and God knows that’s not going anywhere.
Reviewed by: Colin McElligatt
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01