Sunday, May 10, 2009

Earth Rot

‘In the beginning… In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth…’

And so begins David Axelrod’s third solo album; perhaps one of the most twistedly difficult changes in artistic direction any recording musician has undergone.

Don’t believe me?

Well, perhaps giving an insight into what Song of Innocence may have sounded like had Hardwater taken on their proposed vocal duties, this is the first of David Axelrod’s albums to feature vocals. There are no strings. Instead, the chorus is arranged in a style that mirrors what a string section would have sounded like. Tons of reverbed-out monotone shrill that is mixed in —if you can believe this— even louder than the drums.

And, oh yeah, the album’s called Earth Rot: A Musical Comment on the State of the Environment and the chorus sings about how badly civilization has and is destroying Mother Nature.

For all of its big tunefulness and fantastically jazzy solos (mostly courtesy of Ernie Watts on tenor), it is genuinely shocking to hear for the first time. Even for an artist as unique as Axe, it is the single weirdest thing he ever did. The musical backings are easily the jazziest of his Capitol albums, but even comparisons to those previous two genre-defying records does them absolutely no justice; nor does it give any indication of what they actually sound like. The only thing that gives even a slight clue of what you’re in for is Songs of Experience’s “London”: a manic tune whose three minute existence was solely build up, break down and reconstruct something entirely new as quickly as possible. Then repeat. But even that is just a philosophy of composition and says nothing about the actual tonality of the music.

There is nothing comparable to this music, simply because there is nothing else that sounds like it.

Which might explain why it’s so gosh-danged hard to assess. Perhaps if something had been established in its wake, it would be possible to recognize it as the foundation upon which a style was built. But, no. There is nothing. Just this stunning curiosity of an album that sounds like it came from another galaxy.

The lyrics to this album were wonderfully adapted by David’s son Michael from the Old Testament of the Bible and the ancient Book of Navajo Spirits. They are mostly pretty scolding to contemporary society as they coincide with each side of the record. Side one is called “The Warnings” and side two is called “The Signs,” with each being divided into four parts, though playing seamlessly as one larger piece. It’s nice to listen to the album on CD, as to pinpoint exactly where each part of each larger piece begins, but it should be kept in mind that each side of the album was meant to be digested as a whole. Book ended by two a capella spoken pieces, it can now be seen as one of the very first concept albums to exist.

After the initial spoken intro, "The Warnings Part I” enters and you’ll hear an honest-to-goodness strummed acoustic guitar. A wash of vibes and then probably the most famous four bars of music from this album drops in with a flute accompaniment. As the only fully instrumental piece on the album, it is a showcase for Earl Palmer. The somber block piano chords that Don Randi gently pounds away at throughout the song’s all-too-brief two minutes provide a fitting overture for the blissfully nightmare-ish daydream that follows. The final thirty or so seconds when the vibes hit a subtly high register and Earl Palmer plays a signature swamp beat is one of the album’s most sparsely satisfying moments.

“The Warnings Part II” is again introduced with sparse Don Randi piano chords and a cymbal-heavy Earl Palmer bounce of a beat. And then, BAM, at twenty seconds in, the chorus blasts your ears away with the cry that ‘man’s whole Earth is sick.’ The way this thing goes from restrained and sparsely beautiful to uncomfortably blissed out, and furthermore, how quickly it does so, is astounding. A minute into the tune and things are on the move again, as the theme changes and it repeats and whips itself into a big crescendo, only to be rectified by an appropriately busy Ernie Watts solo. A minute later, the tune is broken into near-silence yet again, as the band drops out and the chorus does the same melodic buildup that occurred previously and as the phrase ‘The foundations of the world are being broken… broken… broken… broken… BROKEN’ grows from a sincere concern to a seeming taunt, the band disappears only to have the chorus inform us, a capella, that Earth is ‘trembling… reeling.’ Whoo. Heavy. As one of the album’s most manic and unpredictably catchy songs, it’s long been a favorite of mine.

As one of the albums prettiest songs, “The Warnings Part III” finds its chorus most closely resembling anything similar to a previous Axelrod string arrangement. There are many wonderful moments where the vocals drop out to reveal a fantastic sparse moment and then come swooping back in with a big blast of melody. But, don’t expect it to sound much like anything previous, because three minutes into the song, Earl Palmer takes a solo and the song goes in a completely different direction based around a bass riff after a fantastic buildup. An a capella ending and then a perfect segue into “The Warnings Part IV.”

With big horn charts that may remind you of an Axe-produced Lou Rawls tune, this song, perhaps more than anything else on the album, becomes the most apparent document of its pretty-ugly/subtle-harsh/quiet-loud dynamics. Things shift, sometimes in a mere few seconds, from shrill atonal blasts to completely subdued comfort. With plenty of time signature changes and arrangement switches to keep it the album’s most diverse piece —perhaps to its own detriment— it packs more into just under three minutes than most songs do in twice the time.

The final phrase, which is repeated to a fadeout, heard at the end of side one is ‘When will you believe my message… message… message… message…?’ At which side two’s opener, “The Signs Part I” finishes the thought immediately after a floating reverbed and stretched out vibes and acoustic guitar intro: ‘…that you are destroying your land?’ About a minute in, atop a spacious horn and vibes arrangement, Don Randi lays down a supreme, bluesy solo on acoustic piano that makes way for the album’s biggest sounding arrangement, a reiteration of the previous vibes and horns riff. It’s slow and epic, threatening to become a harsh dissonance, but falling back in on itself before a wonderful trumpet solo becomes the whipped cream on top. It’s a representative moment for side two of Earth Rot: Where side one showed and proved the unpleasantness that lies deep in these compositions, side two seemingly opens the door and gives the listener a peak into that room, but never allows them to enter. Instead, things are much more restrained here. Consequently, “The Signs” side of the album is decidedly more subdued and melancholy. Maybe a tad bit more listenable, but no less jarring in its exceptional distinctness.

After a big crescendo, "The Signs Part II" is introduced with a famously sampled Don Randi piano intro vamp. And this is where the album turns from melancholy to sometimes just flat out depressing. The choir tells the listener that 'Life is failing... soon there will be nothing that's green... the once plentiful fish are dying... there will be nothing that's clean to drink for those who break the laws of nature...' As the most vocally focused song on the album, the musical backing is little more than accompaniment here and there's really nothing else to do, except marvel at the way Earl Palmer fills the space.

"The Signs Part III" starts off with another one of those gigantic horn vamps that is littered throughout the album. And finally, along with the arrangement's soft sadness, comes the near-acceptance of the planet's demise: 'Is this man who has made the Earth tremble with his great and mighty kingdom?' Top it off with a quote from "Holy Thursday" and another blisteringly brief Ernie Watts solo and you have an absolute killer.

After the horns take a final bow, there's a quick moment of silence before "The Signs Part IV" introduces the album's final act with a soft vibes and acoustic guitar intro which nudges our narrators to confess that 'city life is becoming desperate.' A fantastically dissonant flute and brass vamp sets itself out for observance and it's the last briefly brilliant musical moment on the album that is so short and low-key, you may miss it. It's the last hurrah of many short bursts of true musical magic on an album that is defined by them. The spoken a capella "The Signs" closes out the album on an appropriately weird note that finds the group contrarily repeating the phrase 'It is lovely, it is lovely indeed.'

Released on the first ever Earth Day in 1970 to college bookstores across the nation, Earth Rot's fate was as bleak as the album's message. According to Axe himself, because of the subject of album's narrative, it was marketed specifically to college students. But that otherwise astute marketing plan was met with near-silence at college campuses across the country, as most universities were experiencing student boycotts in response to the infamous student deaths at Kent State University. Because of this unforeseen tragedy, the album sold poorly and, consequently, of all of Axe's Capitol albums, it was the most difficult (and most expensive) to track down until Ascension reissued the album for the first time in 2000. As such, I've never personally seen an original issue of the album and the first time I heard it was when I purchased the Ascension CD reissue in 2000. They really tweaked the artwork around on the CD, taking the now famous back cover painting of the hand in the sky holding the Ajax can over the rotting Earth and making it the front cover. The back artwork was actually the original cover, but Ascension placed the song titles on it:

The official US vinyl reissue from 2001 corrects this and, besides the glossy card stock, recreates the original issue faithfully:

As a cool (however belated) addendum to the album, Capitol issued a 12" single that contained two previously unreleased instrumental versions of "The Signs Part I" and "The Warnings Part III" (mislabeled as "Warning Talk Part Three"). This was released to coincide with Capitol's first domestic reissuing of any of Axe's material, the 2005 compilation set The Edge: David Axelrod at Capitol Records 1968-1970 (which I'll get to in a future review). The b-side of the 12" featured a newly remixed version (that essentially chunked up the drums) of a Letta Mbulu tune that Axe produced, along with its instrumental. Confusingly, the two instrumental Earth Rot tunes were not on the compilation album, but they did provide an excellent insight into the tunes, sans vocals:

When I first heard the album, I considered it a fully impenetrable piece of weirdness that I would never truly understand. And, even at this point, roughly ten years later, I would say that that is still sort of the case. It was the last of Axe's Capitol albums that I heard —and I heard it nearly a year after I had fully digested and appreciated Innocence and Experience— and it didn't really appeal to me. It mostly just confused me. The fact that it is Axe's shortest album (when you just count the music), yet I still have this much to say about it speaks unwritten volumes about how unique the album truly is. I've warmed up to it over the years, yet it still remains nothing more than a pure curiosity and, more than anything else, a tangent or unfinished thought.

The instrumental versions released on the 2005 12" single were somewhat of a letdown, to be completely honest. For years, I had been of the honest opinion that the album was not as good because of the vocals. But when I quickly tore open the shrink wrap and skipped the first track to get to the "new" songs, it was kind of... well, boring. The epic boombast of Axe's music was always provided by the strings. And, the album being recorded without strings, the music was nowhere near as exciting or interesting.

The vocals, being a longtime line in the sand amongst Axe fans, make this album interesting; they make the album what it is. They're kind of like those goofy Tom Scott and Gabor Szabo albums on Impulse that are co-billed to 'The California Dreamers' (except with a bit more of a masculine baritone presence) which were recorded around the same time (perhaps explaining why Carol Kaye is absent?). They're sang in that dated late-60's choral rock/pop style, but without any emotion whatsoever, explaining the cold, spacey quality that, in turn, perhaps explains why the record is so intimidating.

In my initial review of the album, I, articulately and somewhat profoundly (considering my then-rudimentary writing), had this to say: "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." Fuck me, I still agree a million percent. That is the most accurate description I can still come up with. And it's representative that it's the best description I could come up with, yet it's still completely vague and generally says nothing all that specific about the actual music.

Again, perhaps if there were something else like it, it'd be easier to assess.


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