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.



banx said...

thanks for this. I'm a young cat but I'm still disappointed that I slept on this guy up until a few months ago. I'm amazed at how uncredited (not completely) at how much his music has inspired hip hop. Everything he works on is gold. Currently in the process of owning his collection.

Austin said...

Thanks for stopping by!

And be sure to stay tuned, as I plan to pick up my in-depth look at Axe's albums (picking up with The Auction) in the coming weeks.