David Axelrod’s eponymous album could easily have been subtitled The Record That Almost Wasn’t. After making his name as a producer for West Coast jazz luminaries such as Stan Kenton and Cannonball Adderley in the mid-‘60s, Axelrod was tapped to produce his first rock act—the imploding psychedelic one hit wonders the Electric Prunes. They were nominally the same band that yielded “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” as they had all been replaced by studio musicians (the name was retained at the behest of label execs) giving Axelrod the license to write and arrange as well. The collaboration resulted in 1968’s Mass in F Minor and Release of an Oath, the former a concept album of rock songs featuring the mass sung entirely in Latin and the latter based on the Jewish prayer the Kol Nidre.
Axelrod then made the unprecedented move of releasing his own albums beginning with Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience appearing in 1968 and ‘69 respectively. Reflecting a truly late ‘60s California mentality, his solo albums infused a funky rhythm section, baroque string arrangements, acid-drenched guitar solos, and lyrics inspired by mystical poet William Blake. As his solo efforts and production career slowly dried up, interest in his back catalog was revived in the ‘90s when he was sampled by the likes of Dr. Dre, Lauryn Hill, DJ Shadow, and the Beatnuts.
No matter how convoluted his compositions became Axelrod never lost sight of the almighty breakbeat. Which brings us to his current release. The backing tracks for David Axelrod were originally recorded in 1968 as the basis for his third album with the Electric Prunes. Lyrics were to be added later this time inspired by the legend of Faust. The project was subsequently shelved and all but forgotten. After his new found popularity an acetate of the sessions made its way to Axelrod who had little interest in the over three decades old work but was inspired to complete it at scenester and Mo’Wax label head James Lavelle’s urging.
The album is book-ended by the only two songs which feature vocals and also eschew traditional rock instrumentation altogether. Opener “The Little Children” pairs a sparse string section with an incendiary but focused tirade from Los Angeles rapper Ras Kass. Closing the album is the horn driven “Loved Boy” Axelrod’s song to his son Scott who died in 1971 at the age of 17. The track features one of Axelrod’s oldest friends Lou Rawls and is one of the most harrowing performances you are likely to hear from someone who hosts his own telethon.
The remaining seven tracks feature the amazing performances of Howard Roberts on guitar and the jaw-dropping rhythm section of bassist Carole Kaye and drummer Earl Palmer. The trio is occasionally accompanied by piano, strings, and horns in what becomes an organic and wholly natural synthesis.
The album has the feel of a relatively unstructured jazz session but largely with the line up of a rock or funk band. Instruments meander into tangential solos or drop in and out of the mix only to eventually return to their loose groove. “The Dr. & the Diamond”, which prominently features fuzz guitar, as well as the more atmospheric “The Shadow Knows” best recall Axelrod classics such as the Prunes’ “Holy Are You”. The horn melody propelling “For Land’s Sake” is the breeziest the album gets evoking a lighthearted ‘70s vibe. It is hard to discern exactly what has been amended to the original tracks and it often sounds like little or nothing has been added. The sound is at times hindered by the poor quality of the original acetate but it also manages to impart the feel of an archeological find underscoring the historical import of the music.
What we end up with is a hapless record store clerk’s nightmare—a funky rock album by a jazz producer released by an electronic label featuring a rapper as well as an easy listening crooner. Got that? Labels aside the album is undoubtedly more relevant than it could have ever been in 1968. What would have ended up a goofy exercise in the limits of concept album excess and would now be remembered as an obscure footnote has instead become a deeply soulful and visceral work from a man uniquely positioned in the music industry. By presenting the work without vocals (which were always the weakest aspect of his compositions anyway) the music is left to speak for itself and it speaks volumes. It is the sound of not only a gifted composer but some of the most able musicians interpreting his vision.
It is humbling to inevitably realize at some point in the album that what you are listening to is not augmented by strings or horns but is merely the sound of three musicians making their instruments sound more expansive than one would ever have imagined possible. Surprisingly, however far from pop conventions the songs may be they nonetheless have the tendency to display one of its hallmark traits—creeping into your consciousness long after having heard them. Even more so without the heavy handed lyrics David Axelrod is the sound of redemptive and life affirming music arrived at unconfined by labels or limitations.