Upon first seeing the name of the musician responsible for this interpretation of the well-worn art music standard, what came to my mind was the same thing that most people who spend too much time following American politics (or, in my case, obsessively watching The Daily Show) would think: “Dang, Obama’s former chief advisor is also a rock musician? Snap, that’s some change I can believe in!” (Okay, definitely not that last part.) But as entertaining as it would be to hear a politician/musician’s take on Handel, as it turns out there are more than two David Axelrods in America. Personally, I figured “Axelrod” was a pretty unique name; it sounds like something George R.R. Martin scrapped while conceiving the nine families of A Song of Ice and Fire.
The David Axelrod responsible for this version of the Messiah that bears his name is a prolific cult musician with a knack for rearrangements. (He’s also responsible for one of the samples on the DJ Shadow classic “Midnight in a Perfect World”). So while this review won’t turn out to be a side-by-side comparison of Axelrod’s composing style and his foreign policy under the Obama administration (probably for the better), I was nevertheless intrigued by the album’s premise.
David Axelrod’s Rock Interpretation of Handel’s Messiah, released in 1971, is being reissued now through Real Gone Music in a straightforward CD release. Packaged in a retro mini gatefold LP sleeve, the reissue is essentially by-the-numbers; the only new material are new liner notes explaining the process of making the album. To Real Gone’s benefit, the original recording of Messiah was good enough that a remastering was unnecessary. For the most part, it seems the purpose of this edition is to reintroduce folks who aren’t familiar with Axelrod’s oeuvre to some of his best works. Like many, I suspect, this is my first experience with Axelrod’s music.
Overall, this version of the Messiah is pretty cool. I maintain that really any use of the Fender Rhodes is a good thing, and upon hearing its presence in the “Overture” I knew I was likely going to enjoy this album. And in the end I did; though the short length (34 minutes) makes this probably too concise of a listen, the music gives a broad overview of the two-plus hour Messiah, capturing its most well-known melodies and motifs. This is very much a product of its time: there’s a funky, classic rock vibe throughout, with occasional flourishes of old-school prog and some accents of jazz. No doubt the most crucial choice in arrangement comes in the choir; given that the Messiah is most known for the “Hallelujah” movement, it’s crucial that any interpretation has a unique spin on it. Axelrod’s decided choice, a gospel choir, isn’t anything revelatory, but it fits his arrangement quite comfortably.
However, though the album’s familiarity makes it a generally enjoyable listen, it suffers for the same reason. While this doesn’t sound like a note-for-note straight rip of the original work, it does play it safe, to the point that it’s more akin to redecorating the Messiah rather than reinterpreting it. If one were to take into consideration all of the dominant musical genres at the time of this piece’s arrangement, Axelrod’s arrangements make perfect sense. Axelrod’s a talented musician, no doubt, but this album doesn’t quite do him justice as the provocateur he’s touted as. This sounds exactly like how one would expect a rock musician in the ‘70st o interpret the Messiah, which is to say it’s entertaining, though for the most part predictable.