The label singer-songwriter can be applied to any artists hovering about among the folk scene of the 70's, but David Ackles is in fact, a singer-songwriter. His songs have personal meaning and represent stories, which in turn helps apply the mood of the music, which is well performed with piano accompanying orchestral arrangements designed by Ackles himself. The strings were conducted by veteran Robert Kirby, the man behind Nick Drake's string work.
Instantly the listener imagines the story which Ackles portrays. He has a huge emphasis on the way stories are told, with the vocals flowing well and the string arrangements feeling both melancholy and dark at the same time. The title track begins the album, it has a powerful piano riff which increases and decreases during the chorus and verses, which structure wise are in place, but the lyrics tell a different story. It's very baroque and dark with hints of sadness through the story.
The second track is extremely mellow, bringing comparisons to Canadian songwriter Jimmy Webb and also fellow Los Angeles artist Tim Buckley. The sweet, softening lyrics about love, girls and feelings create such a beautiful atmosphere. It's sad just to read what Ackles has written. The piano work is fantastic and works well with the Buckley-esque light percussion. it's one of the standout tracks for me due to it's overall mood. It leaves the listener in a state of awe, due to the lyrical content.
American Gothic is widely considered to be Ackles masterpiece. It's not hard to see why critics label this album as his masterpiece because of the strong emphasis on story telling, alike Woody Guthrie in that aspect. With strong conceptual stories representing American lifestyle on par with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Ackles creates an atmosphere with his lyrics and desperate sounding vocals which separates himself from anything else released in this time period. One Night Stand is a great example, showing Ackles tearful lyrics with romance and great vocal flow, which to me sounds like Scott Walker.
Oh, California! is a cheerful song about.. California, which features an energetic string sections and joyful vocals. The piano playing, is by far the best here. Moods are created with the heavier percussion and increased orchestra. Towards the end of the track, the string's really do take control, with a closer focus on piano closing the song off. It's extremely soulful and this is the most cheerful song on the album.
Mournful lyrics surround Another Friday Night, with strong imagery for the listener. This song features a bigger selection of instrumentation, with bass making an appearance, along with bigger, louder drums and an organ, which is used during the chorus. Ackles sings.. "I’ve had men tell me, be content. To spend your life for food and rent, and give up trying. They say life’s a dying jailor, I just tell them, I do alright. Still it’s rough on Friday night. When there’s time for thinking, I spend it drinking up my failure." This extract is my favourite lyrical segment on the album, it's hard to understand how Ackles music has been unnoticed by the masses because the sheer lyricism is outstanding. Gospel vocals and brass related orchestration close the song.
Midnight Carousel has a beautiful, but scary opening piano, which does raise in tone over time. It's by far one of the stronger tracks musically, with great structure and truthful, heartfelt lyrics. It sounds like it could be the instrumental for a dramatic scene in a Stephen King novel/turned film. The recurring lyrics have great effect which become noticeable as the music picks up in texture, whilst Ackles begins raising his voice for a bigger sound.
Ackles sings about home relocation on Waiting For The Moving Van. He looks back at improving his home and imagining what the new owners will change with the place.. "I wonder what they'll do about the oak tree with the swing. I never built the tree house, but I had plans". It has a depressive, angst feel in Ackles lyrics. Noting a deformed relationship, which has left him to sell the house. It's a short story, but with great meaning.
The album comes to a close with the 11 minute heart thumping Montana Song. it's pure poetry, with spectacular orchestral segments. The track does vary, but it keeps to a general structure. Percussion improves and so does the piano work, giving the 'American West' song structure a theatrical feel. it's increasingly hard to call this Folk, not just Montana Song, but the whole album. Sure it has some Folk incentives, with the percussion and vocal delivery. But the heavy use of piano and dark string arrangements lead the genre in disarray, questioning whether it's folk, adult contemporary, baroque pop or the broad singer-songwriter 'genre'.
What we have is a poetic, story telling album, which is truthfully Ackles magnum opus. The vocals are laking skill and character, although emotion is portrayed. Strong lyrics make up the weak spots. It's all well and fine comparing him to Leonard Cohen, but where Cohen's poetry tells great stories and carrys significant meanings which can be interpreted in many different ways, Ackles lyrics are deeply personal and related to himself.