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Saturday, 31 May 2008

Written in granite: There Is A River

What was the best reissue/archive release of 2007? Actually I'm not sure but I do know what it should have been. There Is A River: The Elektra Recordings by David Ackles was on the release schedules, copies were sent out to journalists for review, rave reviews were published but no CDs appeared in shops. Apparently legal issues reared their ugly head at the last moment and there's still no word as to whether this astonishing 2CD set will ever see the light of day.

Two things you might know about David Ackles: 1) Phil Collins is a fan and chose Down River on Desert Island Disks. Mr Collins name is perhaps not totally synonymous with quality, but blame this on his eighties solo output (and, given how much money that must've earned him, I suspect he can probably live [in Switzerland] with that) it was not always thus: he played on John Cale's Helen Of Troy and I love early Genesis – the problems started when he came out from behind the kit, as far as I'm concerned. But he clearly has some taste because Down River is my favourite Ackles song too. 2) Elton John is a fan. Actually that's putting it mildly: Elton John is David Ackles with all the rough edges removed, his whole style is based on Ackles' except that it tends to be those rough edges that make the greatest artists. However, as we know, they frequently do not make the most commercially successful ones. But I'm not going to indulge in Elton and Phil-bashing here, there's plenty of that about if you're in that particular mood. I come to praise Ackles. Now unfortunately you'll probably have to take my word for it, at least about some of the material here. However the 3 albums which make up the bulk of this set have been issued on CD and can still be found. They are David Ackles, Subway To The Country and American Gothic. The latter was produced by Bernie Taupin (the third thing some people know about DA). Although the debut album is the best for my money, they're all great in their own ways. The fourth thing (etc.) is that the opening song on DA, The Road To Cairo, was covered by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and Trinity as their follow-up to This Wheel's On Fire. There's also a French version, oddly renamed La Route À Chicago. Now I happen to speak French so I can authoritatively assert that the French word for Cairo is NOT Chicago. If it's the one in Egypt then it's Le Caire, but this is the one in Illinois. Odd. It's kind of bluesy but it sets out Ackles' lyrical store from the off. He's a storyteller and I'm a sucker for narrative lyrics, hell, I even write them. Is it a coincidence that so many of the lyricists writing more substantial material of this kind were rather older than your average rock star? Leonard Cohen and Ackles were in their thirties by the time they made their first albums, Dory Previn was in her forties. And the great thing was that they weren't simply pretending to be younger than they were, they were writing adult songs. Then there's that rasping voice, it certainly sounds as though somebody has lived in there for a while. I mentioned in my piece on Bill Fay that there seem to be strong parallels between the two; they were working at roughly the same time and both seemed to have a strong theatrical influence. With Ackles you get hints of Brecht, of the French chanson but also something very American. And utterly authentic.

Anyway, in this piece I'm going to concentrate on the tracks on There Is A River that don't appear on the three Elektra albums. CD1 of River features the whole of David Ackles and Subway To The Country plus an interview promoting the latter which I seem to remember hearing on a single, possibly a promo single... I'm sure I've heard it before somewhere, anyway. Then CD2 starts with the 11 songs that make up American Gothic plus another nine, only one of which I'd heard before. Let's begin at the end as, with one exception, the tracks are in reverse chronological order. Track 20 is the aforementioned La Route À Chicago, then before that we have Grave Of God which is very obviously an outtake from the first album, both musically and lyrically. It features a guitar lick not unlike the one from Tim Hardin's Don't Make Promises, but the lyric is pure Ackles and the track itself is wonderfully typical, a story of religious disillusion – which might explain its omission, perhaps it was felt to be a little too similar to His Name Is Andrew?
Old Shoes is another first album off-cut and, while it's good, it's not a criminal oversight. Then, moving backwards, we've got a couple of Subway outtakes in the form of Hold Me In Your World and Such A Woman. The latter, in particular, wouldn't've sounded at all out of place on the album. Hold Me probably would, although that may just be a question of mixing. I'd guess that Hold Me has probably been mixed recently, the vocal sound is completely different, without the trademark reverb found on most of Ackles' vocals. Then there is something really rather wonderful. A single version of Be My Friend. I don't have any sleeve-notes or journalist's crib sheet so I'm not sure whether BMF ever WAS a single, I suspect not. This is a wonderful version of the debut album's closing track, a gorgeous song. It sounds like a completely different take of the song. The LP version is mainly piano, organ and vocal and very fine it is too. The single version is very different, there's a band on there plus wonderfully arranged strings and electric piano. OK, I'm not sure I'd want to give up the album version for this but I'm certainly very, very glad to have both. Finally we come to three tracks from the American Gothic period. One of these is another single version of an album track and it's One Night Stand which has always been one of my favourite tracks from that album. This time it's not wildly different from the version we know and love. Again strings have been added (instead of the woodwind) and the feeling is that the arrangement has been simplified. They've also added a drummer who comes in a minute or so into the song. I do definitely still prefer the album version but again, this is rather lovely and it's great to have both. That just leaves There Is A River itself. In many ways this would've been a perfect fit for Gothic, thematically. Perhaps that was the problem: it's kind of the archetypal track for that record and perhaps the decision was made that it worked better if the ideas were spread across its whole 11 songs, including a few gentler things so that there was some light and shade. It's certainly as theatrical as anything else on that record, and of course it deals with Ackles' homeland. Finally there's I'm Only Passing Through, which is another of those Ackles story songs and... well, you know the title and if you're familiar with Ackles' work then you'll have a pretty good idea of what it sounds like.

So can we please all start to put a bit of pressure on Warner Bros/Rhino to get their arses in gear, sort out whatever problems are preventing the release of this very important set of David Ackles' Elektra recordings.

After Gothic, which was made in England, a classic case of exile giving a new perspective on the artist's homeland, he left Elektra and made just one more album, Five And Dime, for CBS. It's actually a very underrated album and is available from Raven and as bonus tracks you get a number of cover versions of Ackles' songs, including two versions of Phil's favourite, Down River (by Spooky Tooth and The Hollies), the aforementioned Julie Driscoll reading of Road To Cairo and Martin Carthy doing His Name Is Andrew. That's also highly recommended – the sleeve-notes are by Mark Brend, who is himself no stranger to The Granite Shore and whose book on key US singer/songwriters (including Ackles), entitled American Troubadours, is highly recommended.

Plugs aside... I just wish I was plugging River, that's all. David Ackles, like Bill Fay, may not have sold as many records in his whole career (which wasn't a long one anyway) as Elton and Phil have done on single days during theirs, but Elton in particular wouldn't be where he is today without Ackles' genius to inspire him. And, credit where it's due, Mr John has acknowledged the debt on occasion. Obviously, as an American, Ackles wouldn't've been eligible for that knighthood - personally I'd've given that to Fay, who is, but admittedly I'm not generally consulted about Honours' Lists.

So come on Rhino, surely those rave reviews must've meant something? And here's another one, just in case...


Phil Roché said...

R.I.P. David Ackles. You died (much too soon) ten years ago today, so for me it's nothing but David Ackles on iTunes/iPod today. Now, if "There Is a River" would only see the light of day for we fans. I emailed Rhino a few weeks back and received a response along the lines of "thanks, we have no plans for this release, but I'll let the powers that be know you're interested."

mac man said...

There is a River and it sounds wonderful, and well worth the over inflated get rich quick price i had to shed out to bathe in its tranquility.

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