26 Nov 2011

David Axelrod - Beginner's Guide

David Axelrod was a unique and important figure on the sixties music scene. A visionary writer & producer his fusion of symphonic, r & b and psychedelic song structures and conventions wasn't fully appreciated at the time and has only been satisfactorily acknowledged in the last fifteen years or so. His rediscovery is largely due to some high profile samples and championing by artists like DJ Shadow and Dr Dre.
Axelrod started the black music division of Capitol Records in the mid sixties and was instrumental in the success of singer Lou Rawls, who's albums he produced at the time. Concurrently he also produced Cannonball Adderley's Mercy, Mercy, Mercy - one of the biggest selling jazz albums of the era, and a series of albums by actor / flautist David McCallum. McCallum's albums were mostly arrangements of popular contemporary tunes, but several of Axelrod's compositions - notably the Edge & House of Mirrors, found their way onto these albums and pointed the way forward.

What followed was a series of albums, not always credited to Axelrod, which explored his unique marriage of these seemingly incompatible musical styles. Quincy Jones credits him with creating Jazz Fusion with these albums, and while the spirit they were created in certainly shares something in common with fusion I tend to think of Axelrod as more of a modern classicist.

David Axelrod - Songs of Innocence ( 1968 ) The first album credited to Axelrod, Songs of Innocence is the first fruits of his exploration into combining psychedelic rock with strings and is an epic album which would be an ideal starting point for the uninitiated. The Smile is everything that is great about Axelrod distilled down to three and a half minutes of aural gold.

The Electric Prunes - Mass In F Minor ( 1968 ) The Electric Prunes were a garage rock band who had a few hit singles, notably I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night, and two popular albums in the mid sixties. When they broke up, Reprise still owned the name and approached Axelrod to compose an album to cash in on the band's continued success. Instead of attempting to recreate their sound, Axelrod pushed his own agenda and wrote a contemporary psychedelic take on a Catholic mass, combining chanted Gregorian style vocals and creepy church organ with searing electric guitars and r & b drum grooves. Kyrie Eleison attracted some attention when it appeared on the film Easy Rider.
It's an acquired taste but a wholly unique listening experience and one that I love.

The Electric Prunes - Release of an Oath : The Kol Nidre ( 1969 )  Mass in F Minor was successful enough to warrant this follow up volume which matches it's predecessor in quality and sounds like it could have been recorded in the same sessions. If you like one, you're bound to like the other.

Pride - Pride ( 1970 ) This is a lesser known release. Much like Axelrod's Electric Prunes releases Pride were never an actual band, but a supergroup of sessions players. Axelrod's son Michael wrote the lyrics for this album which shares an air of melancholy with Love's Forever Changes. Gone is the acid guitar and large orchestral accompaniment. This is a much more intimate affair than his usual arrangements, performed by a small group with prominent nylon string guitar leads and a hint of the desert breeze.

David Axelrod - The Edge 1966 - 1970
This is an essential introduction to Axelrod's capitol recordings and includes highlights from his first 3 albums, as well as his work with David McCallum, Lou Rawls, Cannonball Adderley and others. If you're only going to buy one Axelrod CD this should be the one.

David Axelrod - The Warner / Reprise Sessions
This is a great archival double CD which includes both Electric Prunes releases in their released forms, as well as in full instrumental form plus the Pride album. Detractors of the Prunes albums tend to point the finger at the choral arrangements so these instrumental versions will hopefully win a few of them over.

Axelrod released a high profile self titled album in 2001 on the Mo'Wax label utilising material he begun work on in the late sixties, and has also released a DVD / CD Live From The Royal Festival Hall. Recorded and filmed in 2004 it features a guest turn by The Verve's Richard Ashcroft and features many of the tracks discussed above.

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