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David Axelrod

David Axelrod is one of those remarkable popular music figures like Phil Spector or Joe Meek or Lee Hazlewood, whose names aren't necessarily known to casual listeners of contemporary music, but whose influence is vast, bridging genres and audiences. Axelrod's career began in the late '50s as an in-house producer for several West Coast cool jazz labels. Over the next decade he became a well-respected Grammy-winning producer of such varied artists as smooth soul crooner Lou Rawls, celebrated jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon, and the cult psychedelic garage band The Electric Prunes.

But the solo concept albums Axelrod began recording at the end of the '60s sounded like none of those artists -- though in a way, all were present in the music. Drawing from his vast knowledge of jazz, soul, R&B, rock, and cabaret, not to mention his familiarity with up-to-the-minute recording techniques, Axelrod created a visionary album in 1969 titled Song of Innocence, a kind of psychedelic pop opera based on the poems of William Blake. A similarly minded record titled Song of Experience, based on another Blake poetry cycle, followed a year later.

Throughout the '70s, Axelrod continued to record these ambitious and experimental albums, besides producing several jazz artists. He was something of a recluse during the '80s, but in the '90s, his music was discovered and appropriated by electronic collagists like DJ Shadow, DJ Cam, and Kid Koala, who were drawn by the music's sophisticated balance of earthy funk and baroque mysticism. Axelrod even did a remix of the U.N.K.L.E. track "Rabbit in the Headlights."

Axelrod's remarkable self-titled twelfth album came about after Mo' Wax learned of the existence of a set of thirty-year-old acetates containing basic rhythm tracks Axelrod had laid down for an unrealized album inspired by Goethe's Faust. So the label asked Axelrod to use them for a new album. The old sessions are indistinguishable from the new, so seamless is the recording here. It's also nearly impossible to come up with any single reference point for the sounds contained on the album. The record opens with a sustained violin tremolo, soon joined by a meandering fretless bass. Then a sinister bassoon and alto sax take over, creating a peculiar Peter and the Wolf-like moment. Soon a weird choir soars in above those sounds, joined after a moment by tenuous trumpet. Then rapper Ras Kass enters the fray, throwing out literate rhymes over melodramatic staccato strings. That's all just in the opening two minutes. The rest of the 35-minute album continues to dazzle, miraculously balancing swaggering bop, string-drenched noir tapestries, baroque pop, organic rhythm and blues, classical undertones, and vaudeville without ever dropping a note. And don't get the idea that these songs are purely technical; they are heavy with emotion. In particular, the album's finale, "Loved Boy," written for Axelrod's deceased son and sung with throaty passion by Lou Rawls, is a masterpiece of pathos and regret. If you have a taste for music that's daring, iconoclastic, and accomplished, you cannot go wrong with this album.

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