Saturday, January 24, 2009

Free America

A page I did on the 15 part limited edition series...


In the fall of 2004, Verve music in France reissued 15 long out of print free jazz titles from the long defunct America label, based in France. The label specialized in the most avant garde of free jazz and this set mostly focuses on American musicians who were visiting European soil. The titles in the set range from semi-well known material by well known groups, to utter obscurities that obsessive fans like me didn't even know anything about before the series' release. I will be discussing the entire set, in the order which they are numbered. All of the titles are beautifully packaged in mini-gatefold digipacks with spectacular new artwork by the French Painter Jerome Witz. Fantastically annotated with insightful and informative newly written liner notes by French journalist Philippe Carles (though the english translations are sometimes a bit difficult), they also include facsimiles of the original album covers and reprinted original liner notes. These were limited, individually numbered packages that have most likely gone out of print by now but are, regardless, an invaluable historical and musical document. I believe 3,500 copies of each release was pressed (I have seen no numbers above 3,500, so this is entirely an assumption on my part) and I will note which number I have.

Artist: Art Ensemble of Chicago
Certain Blacks (#0299)
Year: 1970
Best song: "Certain Blacks 'Do What They Wanna'"

This album starts out with a repeated chant of the title track and then just when it changes to "Certain blacks, dig they freedom!" things explode into all out chaos until nearly two minutes later when the group works into a beautiful Coltrane Quartet-inspired groove. After a break for another repeated chant, the band breaks the tune down and calmly (yes, calmly) meditates on the theme for a few minutes, at times reaching a beautiful melancholy tone. From there, the band builds up and breaks down several times, with a lot of solos and feature sections; the duet between Malachi Favors (bass) and Edward Mitchell Jr. (bass sax) is my favorite portion and an entertaining conversation. Indeed, Favors anchors this whole set exceptionally. There are all kinds of miscellaneous instruments employed, from chimes to harmonica to all sorts of hand percussion instruments. "One For Jarman" is a meditative, feel good song. At seven minutes, it's the album's shortest piece. It's also the record's most restrained, as it pretty much sticks to the main piano theme for the duration. Things are closed out with the romping "Bye Bye Baby", which sounds like a Chicago blues jam crossed with an early New Orleans swing sound. It's a rare moment of funky accessibility in this series and an all around great ending to an album that starts out uncompromising and gets progressively more fun as it plays. One of the more enjoyable and listenable releases in the series.

Artist: Art Ensemble of Chicago
Album: Phase One (#3147)
Year: 1971
Best song: "Ohnedaruth"

Only two tracks, clocking in at about twenty minutes a piece, they are quite contrasting numbers. The opener, "Ohnedaruth" starts out very spiritual and meditative with lots of droning sounds from gongs and a bowed upright bass, but then revolves into a swinging Ornette Coleman-esque groove. The band rollicks, but never gets noisy. And that goes for the entire record; making this one of the Art Ensemble's most restrained albums. Side two is even more sparse on "Lebert Aaly (Dedicated to Albert Ayler)", where no solid rhythm is to be found. However, for a quintet, the band is making a wide array of diverse sounds. Indeed, the fact that, in addition to the fourteen instruments credited to members of the group, each band member is also credited with "Etc." (and furthermore, Lester Bowie is the only band member not credited with "percussions" — notice the pluralization). The song, however, is a surprisingly quiet one, save for a few more aggressive moments during the reeds solos. Overall, it's a really strong album that is representative of the Art Ensemble's progressive leanings, but it's not so avant garde as to exclude more conservative listeners. An album that almost perfectly balances more spiritually accessible moments with a definite radical slant.

Artist: Art Ensemble of Chicago
Album: Art Ensemble of Chicago With Fontella Bass (#2185)
Year: 1970
Best song: "Part One : How Strange/Part Two : Ole Jed"

In a strong case for their diversity, the Art Ensemble starts off this album with a completely percussive beat that soon develops into a traditional African chant. After three minutes of an intense percussive build up, the band falls silent and Roscoe Mitchell and the rest of the band makes it entrance. Singer Fontella Bass —mostly known for her rhythm & blues ditties and for being Lester Bowie's wife— makes her appearance, singing about how strange it is that someone named Ole Jed fell into the well. Fontella's otherwise technically proficient jazzy vocals sound surprisingly at home atop the mellow, yet unmistakably eerie sound he band crafts. When the proper drum kit finally makes its first appearance nearly ten minutes into the song, things quickly swell into up into all out freedom. But, as the Art Ensemble often did, the songs builds up noisy passages into sudden silence over and over again. "Horn Webb" starts out very similarly, with a nearly four minute long drum solo, except played on a proper drum kit by Don Moye. A few moments of silence and then the band slowly enters, seemingly practicing an exercise in restraint, as the song never really gets as loud again as it does in the first few minutes. The sound is diverse, as no less than forty instruments are credited to the various band members (and even then, Malachi Favors is credited with the ambiguous tags of "others" and "percussions"). Overall, it feels like an unfinished piece, ending quite abruptly. Lester Bowie's solo is quite good, but the song as a whole feels incomplete. Indeed, a strange ending to one of the Art Ensemble's weirdest records.

Artist: Paul Bley
Album: Improvisie (#3400)
Year: 1971
Best song: "Improvisie"

First off: this album is seriously meditative. There are only three people playing the entire time and there is no proper drum set (well, not until much later on in the album). Those three people, however, do try to fill up the inherent space with, as in the cases of Paul Bley and accomplice (soon to be wife) Annette Peacock, various keyboards (although, it should noted, none too much acoustic piano). Han Bennink's constant stuttering clangs and thumps provide a very elastic base for the surprisingly melodic title track. I mean, the thing actually has a theme. An honest-to-goodness refrain. Because the melodic sounds utilized here are all keys, there are little to no abrasive moments. Sure, Paul's playing entirely off key, but it doesn't sound abrasive, y'know? "Touching", the second of the album's two tracks, goes much closer to that description. Annette freaks the knobs and switches on her Moog to make some... uhh, interesting sounds. About fifteen minutes in, you might ask yourself, "Hey is this the new Sonic Youth noise record?" No, STUPID!!! She actually takes vocals for a while, and, well, is she one heck of a screamer or what? If pressed, I'd take the title track over "Touching" because it accomplishes the same thing in roughly half the time. Overall though, this is one of the most sparse albums in the series. Surprisingly accessible, outside of the last ten or so minutes.

Artist: Anthony Braxton
Album: Donna Lee (#2402)
Year: 1972
Best song: "You Go To My Head"

Confession time: I actually have a very passionate dislike, arguably a mild hate, for Anthony Braxton. That said, I think this is one of the better volumes in the series. Recorded on my birthday in 1972, it's easily the best Anthony Braxton album I've ever heard as it starts off very conventionally with the title track. An homage to the bebop classic, it steadily descends/elevates (circle one) into all out freedom and by eight minutes in, it's a free-for-all. However, it's a very convincing rendition of the tune. By the time it abruptly ends amidst a Braxton solo over nine minutes in, you may be kind of mad that it wasn't left alone to develop. I certainly was. The next song, ridiculously titled a combination of uncommunicable mathematical symbols (along with the last track), offers a stark contrast with its menacing sparseness. Braxton grabs a flute to start off with but eventually picks up a bass clarinet to squeeze out an engaging solo, complete with twisted "is that a horn?" sounds. The two variations of the standard "You Go To My Head" are just fantastic. The first sticks very closely to the tune in its most classicist sense. The second rendition picks up the tempo slightly and again evolves into complete freedom, again, also, very convincingly. The bass breakdown, which morphs back into a reiteration of the theme, is very Coltrane Quartet, and a really chill-inducing moment. The last track is even more menacing and sparse than the second track and a fitting end to the album. Like I said, the best album I've ever heard with Anthony Braxton's name on it. Really a wonderful experience.

Artist: Anothony Braxton
Album: Saxophone Improvisations Series F (#0138)
Year: 1972
Best song: ?????

This is why I dislike Anthony Braxton. Recorded just a few days after the previously discussed Donna Lee album, this is a series of noodly, totally random, incoherent, derivative solo saxophone ramblings and —you better believe it!— lotsa mathematic symbols passed off as song titles. Squeaky skronky goodness(?) from the guy that wishes he invented it. Two discs worth, in fact. Yikes. At some points, I feel like I was sitting through Metal Machine Music or something. It starts nowhere, goes nowhere and ends up absolutely nowhere. Sure, there are a few intriguing melodies here and there. But, with tracks ranging from two to nineteen minutes long, there isn't a whole lot here that requires repeated listens. As a person who has attempted to play many instruments, I can surely appreciate the virtuosity and creativity it takes to explore some of the sounds found here, but half way through disc two, it feels very self-congratulatory. Probably my least favorite of the series.

Artist: Dave Burrell
Album: After Love (#2105)
Year: 1970
Best song: "Questions and Answers"

The title track here is actually split into two separate 'movements', I suppose you could call them. The first, subtitled "Questions and Answers", is, within this series, standard fare. But, pull it outside of this collection, and you have a startling performance. Over twenty minutes of two drummers creating a low roar for a rhythmic foundation, two bassists playing a composition entirely their own and melodic improvising from the rest of the band that could only be described as 'liberating.' Dave Burrell is actually very supporting cast in his role on the song. Split into two sections, almost western music versus eastern music in their tonality, it is a truly involving and rewarding listen. Part two ("Random"), is much more serene in comparison. If less aggressively abrasive, it is certainly as thought provoking in its melodic meditative theme. The other song, "My March" is a showcase for Dave, as he displays an interestingly melodic solo vamp for the first four or so minutes and then the tune slowly picks up speed after a few solos. It is indeed taken at a march tempo. But it is perhaps the most demented-sounding march I've ever heard. Amongst unintelligible dialogue and/or chants (I can't tell which it is), the song comes to a close courtesy of a Roscoe Mitchell solo and it feels incomplete. A good album amongst this series, to be sure, but, outside of the first track, it just feels unrealized.

Artist: Emergency
Album: Homage To Peace (#2170)
Year: 1970
Best song: "Kako Tune

A live, four song, fourty-five minute set from this ludicrously obscure quintet. Consisting of two African Americans, two Japanese travelers and one native Frenchman, the lone album by this mysterious one-off group has got to be one of the great lost wonders of the ancient jazz world. An otherwise acoustic quartet is augmented by the Frenchman Boulou Ferret's electric guitar through some inspired —and very inspiring— playing. There are moments of abrasiveness and dissonance here, but they make absolute sense in the context of the songs. The sparse Takashi Kako (piano) feature "People In Sorrow" is a definite highlight, as is the pianist's own composition "Kako Tune". You know something's up when you can hear shades of Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal on a free jazz album. Really, this is the kind of thing I am constantly searching out new music for: a wonderfully free expression and exploration of new sounds and ideas. Challenging, to be sure, but equally, if not more so, as rewarding. Absolutely fantastic music.

Artist: Steve Lacy
Album: The Gap (#2092)
Year: 1972
Best song: "The Thing"

BLAM! Right away, this album hits you with the abrasiveness. And the album-starting title track is rather underwhelming, to say the least. There's not much in it that's all that interesting or original. Honestly, not that much happens for most of this album. It's not bad, it's just very by-the-books for a free jazz album. I can't really think of another moment, outside of the first 'squawk!' that really struck me. Everything is competently played, it just sounds rather predictable.

Artist: Roswell Rudd
Album: Roswell Rudd (#1592)
Year: 1965
Best song: "Respects"

So, this is the earliest date in the series, and, as would be expected, it is one of the most tame and best. Certainly, this quartet is playing free jazz, which, by its very conventions, disregards keys and scalar traditions, for a more melodically searching output. All of the songs here were composed by the trombonist and leader Roswell Rudd, save for alto saxophonist John Tchicai's "Jabulani" and Monk's should-be standard "Pannonica". The opening tune, "Respects", is a good manifesto for this album, as it introduces a theme and definitely explores outward from that theme, without ever fully abandoning it. There are mostly very catchy themes presented here, followed by searching, but never all-out noisy, sounds. Roswell sounds rather inspired for the duration, as this was his first proper album as a leader. It's definitely one of the more interesting, and better, titles in the series.

Artist: Archie Shepp
Album: Black Gipsy (#3236)
Year: 1969
Best song: "Black Gipsy"

Starting off with the revelatory epic title track, this album is like a less successful version of Archie's Attica Blues album on Impulse. I say less successful because it partially lacks the energy and immediacy of that album. But, just taking the title track on its own and disregarding the other two tracks, it's still a strong record. A constant blues thump provides the base for noisy solos and some interesting world music-inducing sounds from Leroy Jenkins on viola and Julio Finn on harmonica. It's deeply spiritual music, being so rooted in blues, but with Sonny Murray's inventive percussion and intriguing solos from Archie (soprano), Noah Howard (alto) and Clifford Thornton (trumpet), topped off by some sporadic philosophic rants by Chicago Beauchamp, it's a strange concoction that is as fascinating as it is unique. The second track, titled "Epitaph of a Small Winner: Rio de Janeiro, Casablanca, Chicago" is even more epic in its scope, as it travels through the indigenous music forms of each of the locales named in the title. Scattered and stopgap, but definitely a commendable effort. "Pitchin' Can" closes things out on a fairly conservative bluesy note, considering its predecessors, but is a nice comedown after their intensity. A good album, but definitely a scattered affair.

Artist: Alan Shorter
Album: Tes Esat (#1302)
Year: 1970
Best song: are any of these really songs?

A drum roll introduces a brief, subtly skronky Gary Windo tenor solo and then a menacing bassline revolves around to introduce the maniacal theme of the album's opener "Disposition". After a few variations of the theme, three minutes into the tune, Alan Shorter and Gary Windo combine for a squealing high note that is terrifying. Not long thereafter, things explode into all out insanity. During Gary Windo's initial solo, it may occur to the listener that this may be the single most offensive sounding piece of music in existence. He makes sounds come out of his horn that seemingly do not have terrestrial origins. It never lets up and nearly thirty minutes later, when the band restates the theme, it would make the most sense to call this album's opening tune the single most abrasive moment in the entire series. Split up the middle by the sparse "Beast of Bash", the album closes with "One Million Squared". An abrasive moment on its own, it's nothing compared to "Disposition". An album notable for a few things: Alan is indeed the older brother Wayne, this is one of only two albums Alan was a leader on and it is one of the single most challenging records I've ever heard.

Artist: Clifford Thornton
Album: The Panther and the Lash (#1272)
Year: 1970
Best song: the whole thing

First of all, I'm biased. Clifford Thornton was a favorite before I checked out this series. And this album was the one from his discography that I was missing. So, when I was finally able to obtain it and I heard the absolutely gorgeous opening to "Huey is Free", I had already found my favorite installment in this series. As an ethnomusicologist, Clifford Thornton understood folks forms from all over the world and, much like John Coltrane —who Thornton was an astute follower of—, he was able to accurately incorporate atonal eastern music themes into jazz, while still making the notes sound purposeful. Though dating from 1970 —which is otherwise regarded as the doldrums of free jazz where any kid played whatever notes he wanted without understanding anything about scales or forms— Thornton's vision is fully realized here. Essentially an hour long live performance, the band runs through five originals and two folk songs from northwest Africa. The songs are played without breaks between them and the longer tunes build and swell up to a breaking point where things feel like they are about to explode into complete insanity, but it's always just the finale and the band breaks apart to build up the next song. The employment of exotic instruments enhances world music sound, despite the music ranging from traditional bop, to freedom, to African folk forms, to funk shuffles and nearly post-modern classical atonalities. Intense and powerful music that is certainly at home in the free jazz column, but far too soulful and unique for even that crowd. The band is absolutely on fire and in perfect sync, especially the rhythm section of Beb Guérin on bass and Noel McGhie on drums. Despite the whole thing being one of the most cohesive albums I've ever heard, the last two tracks feel especially genuine. The heart wrenching sadness of "Shango/Aba L'Ogun" and playful, but melancholy "Mahiya Illa Zalab" reflect the times and atmosphere of the frustration of the world at the end of the 60's. Really a wonderful and beautiful climax to an already fantastic album. Easily the tops of the whole series. Arguably Clifford Thornton's best album as a leader, as well.

Artist: Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy
Album: Mal Waldron with the Steve Lacy Quintet (#2307)
Year: 1972
Best song: "Blue Wee"

A strange pairing, maybe just for me because I like Mal Waldron and have never been all that enamored with Steve Lacy. The introductory meditation on the opener "Vio" is a nice showcase for Waldron's sympathetic tone. Things develop into the usual Steve Lacy headiness. There's more head than heart in these songs, but maybe it's Waldron's presence that makes this album a little more bearable for me. "Blue Wee" builds off of a Waldron blues vamp into an evolving tune that is probably the most interesting thing here, because it feels like the band is genuinely having fun, without thinking too much. Alternate takes of "Vio" and "Jump For Victor" are included.

Artist: Frank Wright
Album: Uhuru Na Umoja (#3155)
Year: 1970
Best song: "Aurora Borealis"

A fairly concise album, a standard bass-less quartet and no songs longer than nine minutes. "Oriental Mood" has an interesting theme, but feels squandered because of Art Taylor's relentless drumming in the following minutes. He never really lets up and it feels annoying, like he had to be playing all the time because there's no bass. Dah well. The rest of the album's good. "Aurora Borealis" stays spacious and is one of the most interesting pieces in the entire series, simply based on its sometimes over-the-top prettiness. The short, goofy "Pluto" closes things out and the album does feel a little too one dimensional. It's a little too aggro most of the time and could've benefited from a few more sparse moments. As it stands, it's one of the more listenable installments in the series and a good —but unfortunately not great— note to end things on.

Have a squealy good time.


Monday, January 19, 2009

David Axelrod

David Axelrod is my favorite music maker. Ever. Many try to, and a few actually come quite close, but nobody will ever be as great as he is in my mind. As such, one of the first pages I added to my website in the fall of 1999 was a page about Axe. Although the page changed as I completed my collection, filled in the holes and constantly reassessed the music, it always remained the top link on my home page. There is nothing else like most of this music; and the stuff that is similar is just copying, so it'll never be as good. Anyway, here's the contents of the page when it was last updated 18 May, 2007...

A revamp correcting typos and inaccuracies and adding extra bits took place on 26 April 2009...

David Axelrod (1936- ) was the protege of Gerald Wiggins and a small time west coast jazz producer in the 50's (his most notable production of the time being Harold Land's break out album The Fox). His producing talents grabbed the attention of Capitol Records in the early 60's and he was hired as an in house producer. He started to produce records and make hits for Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and Lou Rawls, amongst many others. Because of his knack for making hits with these artists, Capitol gave him the opportunity in 1968 to record his own material. He then started recording a string of over a dozen albums that defied categorization and broke ground like it was common place. This page has been put up to help shed some more light onto this hip whiteboy's incredible body of work. For audio samples, you can visit The David Axelrod Information Society. Please enjoy what I've put here, and remember, this is just what I think about what I hear when the needle hits the wax.

Axelrod Solo Albums:

Song Of Innocence (Capitol, 1968)

The album that started it all. It defines the term "forgotten classic." Axe combines just about any form of music and style of playing and uses it a little bit throughout the record. I never tire of listening to it. And, in fact, I'd say it's probably my personal favorite album that I've ever heard. It's simply beautiful for all of its twenty eight minutes. Nothing at the time sounded like it and nothing to this day matches it, outside of the Axelrod library.

Songs Of Experience (Capitol, 1969)

Creeping out into the world of weirdness a little bit further on this one. It's Axe's crowning achievement as far as utilizing studio technology to the fullest of its capabilities. The record sounds incredible, even today. There are a couple songs that outdo just about anything I can think of right now (namely, "The Human Abstract"). And, because of those songs, this album cannot be written off as Innocence, Part Two. Both this, and Innocence, are based on the poetry of William Blake (Willie got some heat). Axe has explained that these songs are his "soundtracks" to Blake's poetry. A lot of folks recognize this as his finest piece of work but as much as I dig it, I have to disagree.

Earthrot (Capitol, 1970)

The apex of of Axe's weirdness. Axe ditched the Blake-isms to preach about the environment, and saving the Earth and such. How about that; not only was his music ahead of his time but also his politics (saving the Earth didn't become cool until a few years later). The music has changed ever so slightly to revolve around a more sparse and ambiently melodic theme. It's not quite as focused on creating a theme and building on it as it is on short passages of differing melodic walls. The first Axelrod album to have vocals and it's usually a split right down the center on the verdict of them. They are done in this high pitched shrill monotone style and some folks think they bring out the melody even more so in the backing music while others just find them obnoxious. I really don't have a problem with them myself, but at the same time I could enjoy the record just as much without them. The only track that's fully instrumental, "The Warnings Part I," is worth listening to the record by itself, however, and one listen to the track will give you a great idea of what the entire record sounds like. A one of kind piece, for sure.
Update: When Capitol released the 2005 compilation (see below), they released a 12" single that featured a few exclusive new mixes of some Axe tracks. Two of those tracks were instrumental versions of two Earth Rot tunes. At the time I wrote this review, I thought the vocals didn't really help nor hinder the music, but after hearing 'The Sign Part One' and 'The Warnings Part Three' sans vocals for a few years, I have to say, the tracks are still great, but nowhere near as interesting. So, maybe this album is better because of the vocals.

David Axelrod's Rock Interpretation Of Handel's Messiah (RCA, 1971)

Not really what I'd think of as "rock" music, but hey, whatever's clever. This album is, if you couldn't tell from the title, Axe's own version of Handel's greatest piece, the Messiah. The music is a bit lighter and it relies more on organ and electric piano than before. Cannonball Adderley conducted it and he even makes a cameo appearance on the last tune. The main attraction here is the album opener, "Overture." It's a six minute long instrumental that gets pretty messy towards the end with lots of rhodes piano action. A very interesting piece of work, even if it is slightly predictable at times. Overall, I'd say it's one of those albums that I often underestimate until I actually take it off the shelf and listen to it again and find out it's an awesome record all over again. And you know it's good when an agnostic dude can get down with totally religious-themed music.

The Auction (Decca, 1972)

Using the poetry of Paul Dunbar, Axe recorded this album to reflect a soundtrack for the slave trade. Deep stuff. But what's new? There are vocals once again, which had become a common occurrence on Axe albums by this time. Cannonball takes on the narrators duties, but doesn't do any playing. The music is quite blues influenced, which works well with the theme. The string accompaniments are all but gone, but you hardly notice because the music is done so well. It's the first album where Axe started to get down and dirty about his funk. It was hinted at on all his prior albums, but this album just slaps you in the face with it. You don't see me complaining though. The songs mainly revolve around rhodes piano and guitar melodies, but Ernie Watts does a nice job on tenor sax handling all of the album's solos. Again, another great record. Even though his two previous albums were maybe slight missteps, this one just reaffirms that he was nice, no matter what style he's attempting.

Heavy Axe (Fantasy, 1974)

The first Axe album that contained covers of pop songs. Yes, even Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." I think he fell victim to the mid-70's cheese jazz/funk bug on this one because I really don't like this record nearly as much as his others. There are a couple good songs (a cover of Cannonball's "Get Up Off Your Knees" complete with cameo by Cannonball, and a cover of his own song "Holy Thursday" renamed "Everything Counts") but overall, it's too overproduced and slick sounding for my tastes. It's good for what it is, but I've often said that the reason I don't like this album is because Axe is following instead of leading. I would scoop this one up if you're curious though, because it's kind of strange to hear a Carly Simon cover and something like "Everything Counts" on the same record.

Seriously Deep (Polydor, 1975)

This is where things change for good. Gone are the big symphonic walls of sound and present are the big fat eight minute funk vamps. He hinted at it on his previous album and failed, but this time, he laid off the cover songs and slickness and made arguably his best piece of work since his Capitol days seven years earlier. This is interesting because it finds Cannonball producing Axe's work, instead of the other way around. Synthesizers are used to success throughout the album. It has a strange simplistic dark overtone to it the whole time that makes the album quite mysterious and even more interesting. There are countless open breakbeats and downright incredible moments all the way through which makes the album highly desired. I'm pretty surprised this hasn't been reissued, or bootlegged at least. Either way, this album is great and easily his best venture into the funk/rock world.
Update: Dusty Groove America reissued this for the first time ever in 2008. As if they weren't cool enough already...

Strange Ladies (MCA, 1977)

This album continues the trend that Seriously Deep started, but lays off the trippy-ness and concentrates on the groove. It's one of Axe's most desired among collectors. And rightfully so, it's a wonderful piece of work. The better songs are the ones where the tempo is slowed down and the mood is kept on a somber note. The dark, upright bass driven groove of "Sandy" is quite pleasing while "Terri's Tune" contains a nice funk backbeat with lots of lush string arrangements and will make any fan of his Captiol work happy. But, it seems as if Axe's career had flip flopped by this point. On his Capitol albums, he was creating these lush walls of sound while keeping the funk low key. Unlike now where he was saturating every release in a healthy dose of funk and using the symphonic melodies sparingly. Even though I prefer the former, this album is wanted by collectors for a reason. That reason being the quality is so high on the scale.

Marchin' (MCA, 1980)

The last album Axe would release for the thirteen years that would follow. And he went out on an interesting note. The compositions are there, but Axe had catered to the production sounds of the day and the album loses some of it's flare because of that. But like I said, there are definitely some songs that are certified Axe bangers, regardless of production mishaps. There's even a couple open breakbeats that would compete with any of his previous work. One of his catchiest songs ever is included with "Jahil." It just jams from beginning to end. If your toes ain't tappin' by at least the two minute mark, check your pulse. Also included are some mellower numbers like "Wandering Star" and a tribute to Cannonball, "Threnody For A Brother." It's a bit harder to find than most of his other albums from this time (I've personally never seen a non-promotional copy), but it's definitely worth tracking down.

Requiem: The Holocaust (Liberty, 1993)

Being Jewish himself, it was inevitable that Axe would record at least one song with the Holocaust as his muse. In this case, he decided to make an album of the affair and the result is... different. Easily his darkest album, it mainly revolves around classical ideals with subtle usages of jazz and blues. The majority of the album is very atonal and dissonant, employing those monotone vocals that were also used on Earth Rot. This is definitely not the most happy piece of work Axe has done. But, with any artist in history, he evolved and grew. He doesn't even use drums on this record, whereas drums were the thing you first noticed on the majority of his 70's work. I guess Liberty let this go out print not long after its release because they received some criticism over the cover artwork. It's definitely a challenging listen, even to the most veteran ears. Easily attained through eBay or, I'd recommend it if you're a completist. It was reissued by EMI UK in 2002.

The Big Country (unreleased by Liberty in 1995)

Unreleased for retail, you can get a promo copy if you keep an eye on eBay. It's Axe's personal renditions of popular country songs. Except, without anything to do with country music. Most of the album sounds much like Requiem, but nowhere near as dissonant. On the numbers where Axe returns to his roots is where the album succeeds. He employees a drum kit again for some of the album and makes some very off-kilter, and at times just plain strange, renditions of country tunes. On one version of "Help Me Make It Through The Night" it sounds almost like a gospel affair. The drums are nice and loud when they are used and Axe even lets them open up and breathe a little on a few occasions, which is always welcome. Overall, quite an intriguing listen. But again, only track it down if you're a completist. EMI UK also issued this officially in 2002.

David Axelrod (Mo' Wax, 2001)

The stuff my nerdy dreams are made of. The story of how this album came to be is nothing short of remarkable. After Axe received a career revival of sorts in the late 90's from everybody sampling his stuff, somebody whom he had worked with at Capitol sent him some unfinished recordings on acetate and a close friend, upon hearing them, convinced Axe to finish the songs and record a "new" album. The acetate tracks consisted of Axe's now classic core section of musicians he employed religiously in his Capitol days: Earl Palmer (RIP) on drums, Carol Kaye on electric bass, and the now deceased Howard Roberts on electric guitar. Of the nine tracks on the album, seven were old tracks taken from the acetate and two were brand new. The two new tracks were the only ones to feature vocals. One, titled "The Little Children," featured west coast rapper Ras Kass spitting his prophetic fire over a purposely chaotic string arrangement. The other, titled "Loved Boy," featured an emotionally stirring appearance from Axe's old collaborator Lou Rawls on a dedication to Axe's deceased son. Both songs sound much like Axe's post-Marchin' work. As for the "new old songs", they sound much like you hoped they would. Very reminiscent of the glory days at Capitol. Although that much of something so good can be overwhelming for an overly analytical dork such as myself, "The Shadow Knows" strikes me as one of Axe's finest moments in his entire career. Overall, the album is a huge success and easily one of Axe's top five (or maybe even top three) albums of his entire career. Also of note is the cool ass liner notes written by DJ Shadow and on the CD version of the album, there's an excellent enhanced CD portion complete with a 10 minute mini-movie about the making of the album. Released on James Lavelle's Mo' Wax label, it's still in print for now and very highly recommended.

Live at Royal Festival Hall (David Axelrod Music, 2006)

Recorded in 2004 in the aftermath of the European success of his Mo' Wax album, but not released until a few years later. If that album was the stuff my nerdy dreams were made of, this album is the stuff my worryingly obsessive dreams are made of. I mean, in all honest seriousness, I have a hard time making it through this album without getting choked up and having tears dripping down my cheeks. Laugh at me all you want, but damn, is this redemption or what? Recorded at London's Royal Festival Hall with a full orchestra and a sold out crowd, it's just a testament to the amazing timelessness and overall quality of this music that the majority of it could be conceived in the late 60's, be revived over thirty years later, those new recordings sit in the oven for a few years, and it still sounds as fresh as ever. The setlist here focuses on Axe's Capitol period, which is, simultaneously, a literal dream come true (for me) and somewhat disappointing. Here's both sides: 1) the dream come true: Imagine me as a wide-eyed eighteen year old recent high school graduate working a job as a shipping clerk in a DJ sound equipment store, swearing off weed and booze, yet trying to be in a turntablist group and growing more and more fascinated with breaks and jazz. I opened boxes containing Technics 1200's while blaring Earth Rot and Axe production mix tapes on the boom box in the receiving room. So, yeah. Live hip hop was disappointing at the time, to say the least. So, all I could do was sit back and imagine how amazing it would be to see something like "The Smile" or "Holy Are You" live. So, to actually have an actual document of (what I think are) the only live performances of those songs is absolutely incredible. Life changing. 2) the disappointment: There is nothing here past 1969. Can you imagine how great stuff like "Terri's Tune" or the Messiah overture would've sounded here? Granted, I generally agree that the period documented here is Axe's most consistent, but man, what a missed opportunity. But, there is an upside: the three unheard songs. Well, ok, only one of them is actually new. However, the two covers (The Stones' "Paint it Black" and the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood", retitled here "Spanish Wood") are so different from their original arrangements, they are, more or less, new songs. Slightly discernible melodies pop up here and there, but they are so distorted, you probably wouldn't have known they were covers if the track list didn't indicate it. The third song, a little vamp titled "So Low", is a revelation. It's Requiem meets Songs of Experience and it's stunning. The performance is flawless. Littered with numerous open drum breaks and unexpected chord shifts, it could easily be mistaken for an actual outtake from the Capitol days. And the thing that really stands out here, and the thing that puts these songs into an entirely new context, is the bass player. On all those old Capitol recordings, it's Carol Kaye on electric bass. However, in this live setting, it's professional Brit musician Ali Friend on acoustic bass. Gives all these otherwise familiar tunes a serious revamp. I mean, c'mon, those open breaks on "Holy Thursday" and "Urizen just sound even juicier now, don't they? The addition of the Verve's lead singer Richard Ashcroft on "Holy Are You" is another revelation in itself; a revision through a pompous British dude was all it needed, perhaps? "The Human Abstract" pops up, and that's where the tears start swelling. If the self titled record was great initially, but perhaps a little bit of a letdown in the long run, consider this one of —if not the single— best albums released in my lifetime. Packaged in a DVD/CD combo (the CD excludes "London" on account of length issues), it's simply a devastating shame it's not more widely available.

Axelrod Compiled...

Since the re-emergence of the Axe man in the late 90's, a lot of compiling has been done. Although I recommend skipping these kinds of albums altogether, especially with an artist as diverse as Axelrod. If you are just curious about him, I suppose starting with one of these albums would be wise.

Fantasy issued The Axelrod Chronicles in 2000 and it compiles the entirety of the Heavy Axe full length with a few selected cuts from albums Axe worked on while at Fantasy. It's hard to understand the selections because they are often not representative of the albums they came from, not to mention that they are far from being album highlights (save for Nat Adderley's "Quit It" and the two Gene Ammons tracks). It is however, the only place you can get anything other than the Mo'Wax record domestically and it's remastered and affordably priced.
Update: Whoops, since Fantasy was sold off to the Concord group, this has gone bye-bye.

EMI UK's two anthologies are filled with great selections from the Capitol days (except for a few newer tracks on volume two). Volume one features more Axelrod solo stuff, where volume two has more production rarities. The first volume was my first taste of his work and it served me well, but ultimately wasn't anything more than an appetizer while I tracked down the proper albums. Now that EMI UK has also issued the Capitol albums in their entirety, these seem a little redundant unless you absolutely can't find the productions and collaborative works anywhere else.

Domestically, it took Capitol over five years to realize what they were sitting on and they finally issued The Edge in 2005, which is basically a one disc synopsis of the two UK anthologies. It leaves out a few things, but if you just want one cost effective disc that covers most of the essentials, this would probably be the way to go. The remastering job was handled by Blue Note's in-house audiophile Michael Cuscuna so the remastering is great. Capitol still hasn't given Axe's solo albums a US CD reissue, so if you want that stuff on CD, you'll have to: A) go to EMI UK's reissues B) hit iTunes, as all three Capitol albums are available there or C) make due with this piecemeal.

EMI UK took the first step in reissuing Axe's entire catalogue with the two disc The Edge of Music in 2006. It's the only place to find official CD issues of tracks from his post-Capitol, non-Fantasy work, but at the same time, it feels rather redundant, rehashing the same tracks from the Capitol days yet again and only offering one or two tracks a piece from later albums.

EMI UK took another huge step in 2007 when they issued The Warner/Reprise Sessions. A two disc anthology spotlighting one very well-known period and one very much forgotten period in Axe's career. The well-known stuff is the two Electric Prunes albums that Axe worked on: Mass in F Minor (1967) and Release of an Oath (1968). Mass in F Minor is much more garage-y, much more vintage Prunes. Which makes sense, because the Prunes actually played on it. Release of an Oath, on the other hand, is a completely different story. Most of the band quit during the recording of the album, so Axe hired on his Capitol studio musicians to finish the record (the liner notes do a good job of going into detail about this). And it really shows. It's now pretty much considered Axe's first proper album by hardcore fans and it's absolutely essential listening to fully understand Axe's early music. The really great thing about this collection is that it fully reissues and remasters the album that Axe recorded in 1970, under the guise of Pride. Nooney Ricketts (of Love) sings the vocals (which were written by Axe's son) and the album takes on a strange Latin/folk/rock hybrid sound. There are no strings to be found and the only electric instrument is the bass. A strange album that has unfortunately eluded many fans for years because of the exceeding rarity of the original. It benefits greatly from the remastering job and is just great to have readily available. It's personally one of my favorite things from the Axelrod discography. Disc two of the collection presents both of the Electric Prunes albums in fully instrumental form, and in the case of two-thirds of Release of an Oath, it repeats the instrumental songs again with the drums chunked up and the strings mixed out. Overall, this is an extremely valuable addition to any Axe fan's collection. Well done.

So there you have it. A little slice of some of the music that makes me cry.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

The big change and Why I love to Hate

Hello there-

As you may have noticed, the promise of a return of top five lists in the new year has so far been an empty one. Well, besides losing interest in the idea, I have the glaring fact of my old website to deal with. Angelfire was a fine free service in the days that I started my original reviews and ramblings website, but the increasingly tasteless banner ads and imposing pop-ups have become too much of a botch on even me to edit or update my own site. So, new updates to Redundant Chicanery will continue, however sporadically. I will now be posting new updates here that will consist of transferring over all of the content from my Angelfire page. If this means re-reading all my old reviews that you've read before, so be it. Enjoy them sans pop-ups. I will be trying to add album cover artwork and little extras to all of the artist write-ups as I convert everything over. Stay tuned.

As a starter, here is my diatribe against, originally posted 17 July, 2007:

Why I love to hate

When there's a service —because, let's face it, offers a lot of useful music nerd information for free— as expansive and about as close to complete as you can get for major label (and a good chunk of independent label) recorded music, there's bound to be some descrepancies when editorial comments are added. Admittedly, most of my gripes with them are subjective. However, there are some extreme cases of inconsistency and, sometimes, just outright inaccuracies being passed off as legit editorial opinions. Some of my descrepancies are petty —I openly admit that I don't appreciate when they don't like the same things as I do— but others (I think) are quite valid. Don't get me wrong, this is all in good fun and I'm not really that upset about this stuff, but it's fun to point out. And for the record, the blog has been surprisingly good (so far).

First of all, the remodel...
»A few years back, they had this big revamp of the entire site where they really screwed up their otherwise flawless layout. The tabs that they relied more heavily upon really did ruin things. When you went to artist's page, the discography was on the front page, along with the bio. Granted, it took longer to load, but it did away with a lot of the unnecessary navigating that is now an essential part of scouring the site. It sometimes feels like you have to navigate through a dozen pages to get to the one you were initially looking for. And then there was the small things: the discography used to be listed newest albums to oldest, which just seems to make more sense to me.

The 'Similar Artists' and 'Roots and Influences' comparisons are not very realistic...
»Just look at the U2 page. They list the Virgin Prunes as a similar artist to U2. I know the two bands are affiliated because The Edge's brother was in the Virgin Prunes and they were all mates from when they were kids, but really, they are pretty much as opposite as new wave bands can get. The Sound is listed as a similar band, which I'll take, but the Chameleons aren't mentioned anywhere on the page, neither as being similar, nor as an influence. Right.
»Were you aware that the Trembling Blue Stars are influenced by New Order but the Field Mice weren't? Oh, and for some reason, TBS are also influenced by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. What's next Dave Matthews being influenced by Devo?
»More New Order fodder: they're influenced by Ian Curtis (??!?!?!???!!!??) and are similar to the Durutti Column (they were on the same label, DUH AUSTIN, you fucking moron!!!).
»The Cure is influenced by a German band called Klee, which was formed in the late 90's. And that's possible because, you know, the Cure hadn't been around for twenty years at that point. Also, the Cure and Sinead O'Connor are very similar.
»And, for the icing on the cake, Miles Davis was apparently a big influence on Bill Evans.

The Cure's entry is full of shit...
»In the review for Wild Mood Swings Stephen Thomas Erlewine states that 'several key players from Wish' had gone 'missing.' This implies that there was a whole new lineup or something. Actually, just Porl Thompson and Boris Williams were the only ones absent. And they weren't 'missing' — they left the band.
»Why isn't Boys Don't Cry on the compilations page?
»You'll just have to take my word for it, but they have changed star ratings on several of the band's albums. Seventeen Seconds, Faith and Pornography all had ratings of two and a half stars at one point, now they're all different. Disintegration used to be at five stars, as well. In the print version of the All Music Guide to rock music, three of the band's proper albums receive five stars.
»Our good friend Mr. Erlewine, in his review of Galore calls them 'a singles band.' I mean that's just stupid.
»In his review of Pornography, Stewart Mason says that "The Figurehead" is a 'sound-over-substance piece of filler, which sounds suitably bleak but doesn't have the musical or emotional heft this sort of music requires.' Besides being a grammatical nightmare, the statement makes you wonder if he even listened to the song.

The criticisms of Maxwell are bottomless...
»Stephen Thomas Erlewine points out that Maxwell's Embrya is full of 'ideas that lead nowhere', but never expounds. With a pretty aggressive criticism like that, it would be nice to know what specifically you're talking about, Mr. Erlewine.
»Erlewine again makes a pretty dumb assessment in his review of Max's next album (Now) as well: 'He's trying to live up to the tradition of Marvin and Prince, and while his productions often live up to that legacy, he has yet to write songs memorable enough to truly justify those comparisons.' Who decided that Maxwell was trying to live up to Marvin and Prince? Couldn't it be that he's influenced by them and that's the end of it? That's just silly. You might as well say, 'You know, Love and Rockets will never record anything as good as "Bang a Gong (Get it On)", even though they really want to.' It's just an absolutely irrelevant thing to point out and, not only does it make Max out to be totally incompetant (which he's obviously not), it really makes the reviewer sound like he's got a personal vendetta.

The John Klemmer discography is a god damn disaster.
»All of the albums have ratings, but very few have actual reviews written. "This is a piece of shit two star-worthy album. Don't ask why." What the hell?
»Why is Touch on the compilations page?
»Why are so many of the albums listed out of order? And furthermore, with a completely wrong year of release listed?
»Why does the entry just suck so fucking much?!?!?

Ok, sorry. I'm calm now. Let's continue...

Why do most rock bands and artists also have a classical entry?
»Hey, I think it's great that there's a string quartet tribute album for just about any flavor of the month frontrunner of a band these days, but why does that merit a classical music entry? Here, let's bog up the entire site with double listings for everything, why don't we?

Scott Yanow is a pretentious butt who is maddeningly redundant in his criticisms.
»Just look at the Joe Henderson page for a small example. The first sentence of the bio reads that Joe is 'proof that jazz can sell' — a reference to Joe's later success at Verve in the mid-90's. In the first sentence of the review for Joe's first Verve album in the 90's, Yanow again states that 'with the release of this CD, the executives at Verve and their marketing staff proved that yes, indeed, jazz can sell.' Thanks, Scott. That was profound. And it really lets me know about the music. Later on, in his review of the Miles Davis tribute album on Verve from the same period, he likes the fact that Henderson picked mostly lesser-known material from Davis' cannon: 'He is to be congratulated for not taking the easy way out and sticking to the simpler material of Davis's earlier years.' Because, really, it's not about how well the material is performed, it's about 'not taking the easy way out.'
»According to Mr. Yanow, Ron Carter's albums as a leader are "for lovers and/or fans of bass solos" (in two different reviews) and that his albums are mainly a showcase for Carter's bass (two separate reviews). Thanks, Scott. Here I was, expecting Ron Carter to be playing extensive banjo solos.
»Also, according to Mr. Yanow, in his review of Bill Evans' 1977 album Affinty, Bill plays "electric piano on this album for the final time in the recording studio." That's just fine, except that he played it again on We Will Meet Again, which was recorded two years later. I guess in Yanow's world, 1979 came before 1977.
»The guy is the reason that there is a stereotype of jazz fans being snobs. With his authoritative stance and broad generalizations passed off as valid criticisms, Scott Yanow is an embarassment to any jazz loving listener.

I hate Mackenzie Wilson and her stupid Beulah reviews.
»In the review for The Coast in Never Clear: 'After the dazzling reception of 1999's When Your Heartstrings Break, Beulah wasn't concerned with following things up with something fashionable.' Ok, thanks for telling me that. Whatever it happens to mean. Also, to finish off the review: 'Beulah's indie cred cannot be tarnished with The Coast Is Never Clear. It's not strict rock music — it's basic. And it's good.' Great associative transition there.
»In the review for Yoko there is a striking similarity to something I pointed out in my initial review of the album: 'It's not entirely wrong to wonder if the title itself represents the obvious — that famous lady who's associated with things breaking up. Or it could very well be an acronym taken from the string-laced gem "You're Only King Once."' It's an easy thing to notice, I suppose.

Merge the fucking Dollar Brand and Abdullah Ibrahim entries already!
»It's the same guy, dummies!

Discography gaps, inconsistencies and inaccuracies...
»Although Björk's early bands (Tappi Tikarrass and K.U.K.L.) are mentioned in her bio, they are not listed under the 'Member of' listings, despite the fact that both bands released records.
»On Stephen Duffy's overview page, in the 'See also' listings, there is a link to the page for Tin Tin. However, it directs you to the early 70's Australian band of the same name. For Duffy's own Tin Tin, you have to look under the discography, where both his solo albums and Tin Tin albums are listed. Furthermore, some of the later Lilac Time records are also listed under Duffy's name, while the early Lilac Time albums have their own entry under the band's proper name.
»In his review of The The's Soul Mining, Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls the album 'The The's first album.' Soul Mining was released in 1984. Strange that, in the discography section, the band is credited as having a release called Burning Blue Soul in 1981. Maybe because Burning Blue Soul was their first album. Also, Soul Mining is listed as being released in 1983, but anybody with an original vinyl copy (*pops collar*) can clearly see the '© 1984' on the back of the cover.

That's all for now. But you better believe there's more on the way.

And there will be.