David Axelrod: David Axelrod's Rock Interpretation of Handel's Messiah

This sounds exactly like how one would expect a rock musician in the '70s to interpret the Messiah, which is to say it's entertaining, though for the most part predictable.

David Axelrod

David Axelrod's Rock Interpretation of Handel's Messiah

Label: Real Gone Music
US Release Date: 2012-04-03
UK Release Date: Import
Label website
Artist website

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.