Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Although there were some important things that he was working on —and which were released— in the interim, David Axelrod's follow-up to Earth Rot was released a little over a year later and with a few important changes. Chief among these being that this was his first album not on Capitol, and the first to start off his label-jumping 1970's decade.

And this is a weird album, especially considering the context.

If you are to count the Pride album as a David Axelrod solo record in all but name (which I personally do, but I'll get to it later; as it's technically not), then you have to consider that Axe was coming off the most progressive and personal work he would ever do. And then, when you go the next step and consider that he did one of his heaviest (and least like his signature style) albums immediately after this 1971 album, this album just seems completely out of place.

In retrospect, the Messiah album almost seems a little stopgap.

There's a producer listed on the liner notes that isn't Axe (Ronald Budnik — exactly, who?!) and Cannonball conducts, perhaps suggesting that Axe's whole heart was not really in on this one. And, just looking at the surface —old compositions with new arrangements, production and conducting duties someone else' problem— it's easy to write this one off. And I did. For a long time.

Still not my favorite Axe album by a long shot, I've warmed up to David Axelrod's Rock Interpretation of Handel's Messiah (it's full original title, later changed to just Messiah) quite a bit over the years. It was the first Axe album I heard, and so, based on that alone, it will always have a special place in my heart. It's just that the album feels less like a step forward (as all of his first three albums did), as it does more like a holding pattern.

Starting the album off with "Overture," one of the greatest and most epic Axe tunes ever, is not bad by any means. The tune is one of only two instrumentals on the album and it is easily the most reminiscent of anything previous. The first two and a half minutes are the closest Axe had yet come to traditional classical music. Lots of big, dynamic string and woodwind sections with varying time signatures, and no backbeat to speak of. A fantastic pre-cursor to the works he would attempt much later, it's just as confusing as it is intriguing. When the fuzzed-out electric guitar strums atop a grandiose string section two minutes in, you know something's up. A short theme and then silence. A gently plucked electric guitar chord and some vibes resonate, an electric guitar distorts its way into the mix and then an electric bass wails the impending theme in a high register. And then, wait, that perfectly dramatic drum fill? There's Earl! Crash and in comes the swamp beat and HO-LEE-SHIT, what an epic buildup that was! The rest of the tune rolls along with too many amazing moments to try and articulate here. Just know it's one of Axe's best.

And then some pretty piano chords. "Comfort Ye My People" is the first song to feature vocals on the album and they're really good, actually. Kind of done in that pop soul style that Axe was so fond of. They're mixed in kind of low, which is a shame because the male vocalist (unlisted) is really kind of guttin' it the whole way through, even cracking and breaking pitch in a few places. Fantastic stuff, actually. But so unlike the overture, it's not even funny. I mean, is this a Lou Rawls outtake? Great stuff, in any case.

And then we have another Lou Rawls song (actually "And the Glory of the Lord"), but sang by a female lead backed by a choir this time (again, unlisted). The arrangement here is just as nice as any of Axe's Capitol productions and there's even a bit of twang in the electric guitar, perhaps suggesting that this is actually Axe's blues rock interpretation of the Messiah.

Presumably, "Behold, A Virgin Shall Conceive" has the same female lead as the last tune, because she's just as awesome. The arrangement here is slow and unfolding. So much so, that by the time the song is over, you'll want a lot more. The thing has changed for the better so much that you'll want a little repetition of that last little section. The song, perhaps more than anything else on the album, with its belting female lead and heavy reliance on fender rhodes accents, most heavily highlights the gospel slant of this rendition of the Messiah. The final thirty seconds or so —an infinitely lush layer of interlocking strings and horns— is absolute heaven for me. Complete and utter musical perfection. Besides the overture, this is my favorite song on the album.

Flip the record and you're greeted by... more classical music. Actually very nice and not the least bit funky, "Pastoral Symphony" is just as its titles implies. A faithful rendition, I hated it and skipped it every time I played the album for years until I finally became a man and started listening to classical music. I mean, does this sound like a David Axelrod song? No. But the rest of everything else on the album does, so this is easy to disregard. But give it a chance and it's a good mood setter for side two.

Starting off sounding like it's going to be an extension of "Pastoral Symphony," "And the Angel Said Unto Them" features a heavy swamp beat from Earl Palmer and some seriously good subtle guitar work. The female lead is less soulful and a little more operatic and traditional, but she's completely out of sync with the otherwise incidentally funky backing track. I mean, this backing track has to be a Song of Innocence outtake. It's that good. Tons of loping horns and a growing string section lay underneath a shifting, longingly beautiful backdrop, accented by lots of fuzzed out guitar and Hammond B-3 riffs. Too bad that opera lady won't shut up. Sorry, but she ruins it. Good song, could've been better though.

"Glory to God," honestly, is what I expected this album to sound like. A big choir arrangement and little intermittent instrumental sections. A little over the top and very vocally focused, it sounds like the sort of middle of the road AM pop rock that seemed inherent upon looking at the cover of the album.

Despite its kick ass Earth Rot-style quick as lightning flute solo, "Hallelujah" is more of the same. Big horns, big choir, a little Hammond B-3 to give it some stereotypical 'churchiness' and that's that. Not a real big fan of this one, but it serves its purpose I guess.

"Worthy is The Lamb" opens with —at least I've always assumed but can neither conform nor deny because of the lame liner notes— a solid Cannonball Adderley soprano cameo that is completely jubilant yet softly captivating and so appropriate for the last song on the album. Another all-choral vocal, it's at least quite varied in its arrangement, with a nice instrumental breakdown in the middle. A good note to end on as well, as it feels perfectly resounding in its final cadence.

As my first Axe album, it was acquired incredibly easily in comparison to the lengths I had to go to in the following years. I found it in the racks at my local used record spot (the only album I was able to find there; everything else was either reissues, eBay or out of town spots), so I just assumed for years that it was Axe's easiest to find album. I don't know how this one did initially. It popped up quite a bit ten years ago, but originals are seemingly less available these days. In any case, here's the original 1971 issue on RCA "Dynaflex" (a/k/a shyte) vinyl. You can't see it in the photos, but the cross on the cover is die cut and actually pops out. So cool:

The album was reissued on vinyl only in the early 2000's (I want to say 2002, but I don't know, as I didn't pick it up right away). The vinyl reissue does away with the original's gatefold cover, gets rid of the die cut cross and replaces the original slate card stock with a glossy one. The mastering is the same:

As the first proper Axe album that I was able to sit down and listen to from beginning to end, this was a real letdown for me. I knew the original EMI UK compilation (Anthology 1968-1970), so I knew some of the choice Capitol stuff, but this album was just a head scratcher for me. The overture was what I wanted. Stuff like "Hallelujah" and "Glory To God" was not. It was a seriously confusing album. Not in the good Earth Rot way either. In the bad, 'Is this really what I like?' way.

The liner notes told me next to nothing about the specifics.

Cannonball conducted, huh? So, basically, he got drunk, said, 'Yeah, Axe, that sounds good,' played a short solo at the beginning of a tune and then went and recorded Soul Zodiac? Who is Ronald Budnik? Who are "The Dillons" (credited as 'artist')?!?! What was the motivation behind Axe doing a record on RCA; how did that happen? Who is in the band?

Basically, this album was frustrating then, and after years of analyzing and constantly reassessing the music, it still is. Even more so, in fact. The liner notes are almost intentionally vague (I'm just assuming that's Earl Palmer on drums because if it's not, somebody's jockin' his style pretty heavy). Most of the backings sound like the arrangements that Axe did for Lou Rawls, so accordingly, this sounds more like an Axe production and less like an Axe album. Truly, the only things here that sound like David Axelrod songs are the overture and "Behold."

But, in the end, it does have that undeniable Axelrod sound throughout most of it. If it's not as soul-wrenching or resonating as anything that came before it, that, in retrospect, can be forgiven because of the highs that were achieved before it. Everybody needs to take a breather every now and then. And this was Axe's. Sure, it's a rehash of the religiously-themed Electric Prunes albums from a few years previous, but it's done in a way more soulful style. One that reflects the blues and gospel influence that modern religious music has, implying that before spiritual was spiritual, it was soulful.

This, even though I wouldn't realize it until much later, was a wonderful preview for where he would go next.



xmnr0x23 said...

I love this album, Austin. Personnaly, I had more "trouble" with Requiem and The Big Country. The singing on Messiah keeps giving me goosebumps, even now after listening to it for the umpteenth time. The guitar on Worthy (how it's mixed into the tracks, and builds up)... The drums... Boy, I play this one real loud, every time!

Here you have a picture of Ron Budnik and some basic info:


Can't help you with the session info, but I'm working on it. Will give you an update when I have all the details.

Austin said...

Ahhh, many thanks for the Budnik info.

I mean, don't get me wrong, this is definitely peak period Axe. It just feels like he's going through the motions without much thought on this album.

Still great though.

Just wait until I get to Requiem and Big Country. If you thought my Earth Rot review was long on confusing, vague adjectives, you'll hate me after trying to decode what I have to say about those albums.


xmnr0x23 said...

Hehe, can't wait. Still have to read some of your other reviews a few times. I like to take my time and think.

Oh btw, The Dillons are not a band or anything. They are Mr & Mrs Dillon, illustrators, and they designed the album cover. I think they were pretty famous? Don't know, as I'm not from the States, so.

Until your next comment / review.

xmnr0x23 said...

Oh, and I don't think I will be able to get my hands on the actual session info. To my knowledge, there isn't a book covering RCA and I have asked around but nobody seems to have it (or feels like sharing.)

Would that mean one would have to check out the union contracts? Don't know, as I don't have any experience with that sort of thing. My sources are all books and magazines. Private mails too, but so far none of those got me any factual session info.

Austin said...

Wow, so the Dillons are the people who did the cover?

Man, could they have gotten any more convoluted on the liner notes?!


Good info though, thanks again.


xmnr0x23 said...

Yeah, it had me confused too, hehe.

Anyway, some more pictures to add to the names:


There are plenty of names in the Axelrod Universe. And lots of track titles connected to people...

Btw, Budnik is on facebook. Try asking him who was on that record?

Austin said...

Oh dear, I'm afraid Facebook falls miles across my own personal "Oh HELL no" line. Even for Axe info, I just can't justify it.