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A Grammy award-winning producer for Capitol Records who helmed dozens of great jazz, funk, and soul records during the 1960s and ’70s (by everyone from Stan Kenton to Lou Rawls to the Electric Prunes to Cannonball Adderley), David Axelrod also forged a distinctive musical style while recording several of the most eccentric albums of the ’70s. His sound, as immediately recognizable as it is sparse, combined cavernous, heavily mic’ed drums with baroque orchestration (just a step away from overblown) and ahead-of-his-time themes ranging from the environment to heightened mental awareness.

Producer, arranger, and engineer David Axelrod made his mark with Cannonball Adderley, Lou Rawls, and the Electric Prunes. He created recording dates — both live and in the studio — with crisp innovative production, forward-looking arrangements, and killer sound effects (the Prunes’ weird “Mass in F Minor” is a case in point). No one, however, expected him to make his own records. Nonetheless, in 1968 his first concept work was issued under the EMI imprint. His inspiration was Songs of Innocence, English poet William Blake’s watershed collection of poems; Axelrod set seven of them to music using a bevy of studio musicians and a lot of clout at the label. Using a rock orchestra, Axelrod created a suite that blended pop, rock, jazz, theater music, and R&B that has withstood the test of time, and has been revisited and sampled by electronica pioneers such as DJ Shadow and DJ Cam. Perhaps the best known tune of this mystical mixture is the jazzed out, slow groove of “Holy Thursday,” with its bluesy bop piano lines and huger than huge string section playing a vamp from a Count Basie tune. Meanwhile, the rhythm section floats a steady, swinging rhythm to the guitars and brass who answer with dramatic harmonics centered around a complex yet elegant melodic, and the guitar itself screams overhead. It’s a jazz boogaloo with classical overtones. And yes, it, and the rest of the album, sound as if it would be excessive and awful. This was visionary work in 1968, and, to commit heresy, withstands the test of time better than the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album that allegedly inspired it. Axelrod’s psychedelia is implied; its compositional form and feeling that drive him to celebrate the wildness and folly of youth with celebration and verve. And as a result, the music here sounds fresh, free of cynicism and hipper-than-thou posturing, remaining new each time it is heard. Song of Innocence made critics turn their heads in its day, regarding it as a visionary curiosity piece; today it’s simply a great, timeless work of pop art that continues to inspire over three decades after its initial release.

After the modicum of success he’d experienced with his debut, Song of Innocence, set to William Blake’s epic suite of poems, composer, arranger, and producer David Axelrod turned to the British poet’s Songs of Experience for inspiration in creating his follow-up album. Using eight of Blake’s poems, Axelrod composed a suite that was less rock in its aim and more pop- and jazz-oriented in places, but overall a more orchestral work. Texturizing a symphony with percussive elements and the use of British and Irish folk song, as well as the stylistic inventions of fellow arranger Gerald Wilson for effect, Axelrod created a sobering, and, in places, even melancholy collage of song and lyrical styles that slid rather than drove home its point: that experience is a good but bittersweet teacher. Axelrod’s compositions are positively literary here, lush and varied, using as much space as they do sound for dramatic and dynamic effect. His complex use of the various colors the horn section was capable of producing allowed him to create new palettes for the rock instrumentation. The centerpiece of the album is “The Human Abstract,” a gently swinging, funky, bass-driven work that juxtaposes a strummed electric guitar playing augmented sevenths against an acoustic piano and a muted drone of horns. By the time the guitar enters for its solo, the strings have erected a space out of the ether for themselves to further shore up the orchestra’s time-honored body against the wail of unrepentant youth. The tension in the tune is dramatic, colorful, and hued with as much red and yellow as there is blue and black. When the French horns and tuba state their case against the high-flying impetuousness of the restless spirit, a piano bridges the gap, whispering the melody’s main theme in the center channel, whispering them both out into silence. Other notables are the positively majestic “The Divine Image,” and the pastoral sadness in “A Little Girl Lost.” Axelrod’s meditations were getting darker with the times in 1969, but they hadn’t yet reached the horrific potential for darkness that they would on 1971’s Earth Rot. In 1969, Axelrod was still a musical contemplative searching for a sound that best exemplified not only his feelings but also the heady text he sought to sonically illustrate. He succeeded in spades.

-Thom Jurek,

David Axelrod-SONG OF INNOCENCE (1968)
David Axelrod-SONGS OF EXPERIENCE (1969)


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