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A New Ax To Grind

In this post-postmodern era, it seems trite to observe that no music or musician is truly lost to history. Who’d have thought that, 17 years after his death, Marvin Gaye would have a new hit stomping over urban radio in the form of “Music,” his “duet” with Erick Sermon? It doesn’t matter if your career’s dead (Shuggie Otis) or if you’re literally dead (Nick Drake), you can be just one reissue, sample or, um, VW commercial away from resurrection. Yet even if we’re primed for old ghosts to walk among us, some comebacks still have the capacity to surprise. Witness the return of David Axelrod.

For Reagan-era soul babies and later, don’t be surprised if Axelrod’s name doesn’t ring a bell — his career peaked 30 years back. But don’t confuse Axelrod with some smalltime one-hit wonder. A Los Angeles native, he was a producer for Capitol, Prestige and Fantasy from the mid-’60s until the mid-’70s, helping to take Lou Rawls into gold-selling stardom, partnering with Cannonball Adderley to record a classic live version of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and producing everyone from Grateful Dead keyboardist Merl Saunders to the psychedelic garage rock of the Electric Prunes.

It was Axelrod’s unexpected success with the Prunes’ LPs Mass in F Minor and Release of an Oath in 1968 that led to his first solo albums, Songs of Innocence (1968) and Songs of Experience (1969), both based on the poetry of William Blake. With Miles Davis still a year from releasing Bitches Brew, Axelrod previewed the sound of “fusion” — moody baroque passages, orchestral swells, solemn choral sections, rock riffs and melancholy jazz phrasings. But the key to his enduring popularity was his funk-derived breakbeats. For a classically trained composer, he possessed an unerring ear for percussive rhythms, incorporating rolling drum patterns into his songs that would attract the interest of hip-hoppers decades later.

The resultant sound is lush and decadent in its moods, yet sparse and broad in its arrangements, a yawning valley that’s dense without being cluttered. His closest contemporary might have been composer Lalo Schifrin, but Axelrod went way beyond catchy TV and movie themes. Among his eclectic solo albums of the ’70s are meditations on American slavery (The Auction, 1972), the environment (Earth Rot, 1970) and Handel’s Messiah (1971).

Unfortunately, by the early ’80s, Axelrod’s career was on the fast track to permanent obscurity, until DJ Shadow led the rediscovery of his music in the mid-’90s. Since then, no less than two dozen artists have sampled Axelrod’s work, from the funkdafied spaghetti-Western flavor of Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode,” to the wispy melody running through Black Star’s “Respiration,” to the playful romp of Lauryn Hill’s “Every Ghetto, Every City.”

This renewed interest in his work has led to Axelrod’s eponymous album on Mo Wax. Technically, it isn’t “new” — three-fourths of the compositions originated from a 1968 acetate previously lost in Capitol’s vaults. In reviving the album, Axelrod kept the original rhythm tracks by bassist Carol Kaye, guitarist Howard Roberts and drummer Earl Palmer, then re-recorded the strings, horns and vocals. Many of his past collaborators creaked out of the woodwork to work with him again, including Lou Rawls (“Loved Boy”) and Axelrod’s longtime arranger H.B. Barnum, plus newcomers like rapper Ras Kass, who appears on one of the two new songs, “The Little Children.”

For an album that’s collected dust for three decades, David Axelrod is as striking as anything from its namesake’s storied career. Yes, certain parts will sound familiar to those already acquainted with Axelrod’s work, but they’re no carbon copies, either. In fact, David Axelrod offers a more diverse palette than many of his other albums, with a range of moods from the urgent, driving funk of “Crystal Ball,” to the rich soul-jazz melodics of “Jimmy T,” to the bluesy gospel reach of “For Land’s Sake” and the dark, dramatic sweep of “The Dr. & the Diamond” (dedicated to Dr. Dre and Diamond D).

The album’s centerpiece, however, is the nod to DJ Shadow, “The Shadow Knows,” a seven-minute epic. The song is weighted with an intense heaviness that borders on religiosity, aurally enforced by Kaye’s stirringly forceful bass lines and the caustic edge of Roberts’ guitar. Axelrod’s special touch is the dissonant whine running underneath, a sinister element lurking in the background. But two minutes in, the song makes an unexpected segue as the melody swings back and forth between a couple of contrasting chords. And with that simple move, the song trades in its trembling solemnity for a moment of ineffable, almost angelic beauty — salvation manifested musically. Some 30 years after its birth, “The Shadow Knows” still manages to grab your soul, a testament to Axelrod’s continuing reign as one of the great composers in the 20th and now 21st centuries.

DAVID AXELROD | David Axelrod | (Mo Wax)


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