It was reasonable to look at the dark side of a "new album" equation by legendary L.A. composer/producer/arranger David Axelrod. After all, it is on Mo' Wax, and was recorded at their beckoning. Axelrod has been sampled by every hip and wannabe DJ in the Northern hemisphere, and he is an iconoclast. For all the buildup it's gotten, it seemed like it had to tank because more than ever, music fans are encouraged to drink the music hype Kool-Aid week after week -- and consequently, there is less and less there. However, after hiding out for six long years, receiving -- and cashing -- check after check from hip-hop DJs who sampled his material to various ends, the nefarious Axelrod returns to the scene of his greatest glories, Capitol's Studio B, with a slew of his old musical gang in tow and wrestles a gem of an album from the jaws of antiquity. His first recording in six years is far from the storied excess of either 1993's Requiem or 1995's paean to country music, The Big Country. Instead, Axelrod has claimed seven songs from a recording begun for Reprise in 1969. It seems Axelrod had been tinkering about with the idea of writing an album based on Goethe's Faust for Reprise. His lead sheets had been written and the rhythm tracks were already recorded and put on acetates. For internal reasons at Warner Bros., the album never happened and the material was all but forgotten until Mo' Wax stepped in after hearing about the existence of the acetates. Seven of the nine tracks here come from those sessions. They have been reworked and adorned with orchestral textures. In addition there are two new tracks: "The Little Children," the album's opening salvo, is a collaboration between Axelrod and longtime co-producer H.P. Barnum and West Coast rapper MC Ras Kass; and the other, "Loved Boy," is a reunion between Axelrod and R&B singer Lou Rawls that closes the disc. The set opens with trembling violins and Jim Hughart's trademark singing bassline that foreshadows the entrance of a choir and bassoon as well as other orchestral tinges. When Ras Kass enters, a glorious medieval gothic mood has been established, and despite his rapping -- no streetwise style either, he's speaking as the true dark side of the Pied Piper -- the mood isn't sullied. The strings swell and pulse, with winds and choir voices in the background. A cello bows out a lament and the track erupts into a post-bop blues, with Lanny Morgan blowing alto. It's a stunning montage that leaves an eerie taste in the listener's mouth until the full-fried boogaloo of "Jimmy T" kicks in. Orchestral swells meet the Meters' street funk and are tied together by Bob Efford's baritone solo. As always, Howard Roberts plays the hell out of the guitar, making each note sting -- especially as the choir enters, and Axelrod's longtime rhythm section of Carol Kaye on bass, Earl Palmer on drums, Gary Coleman on percussion, and Don Randi on piano is augmented by none other than Joe Sample on B-3. By track three, "Crystal Ball," with Roberts' guitar biting deeply into the orchestra to lead the charge on the lead sheets, listeners realize that it's not going to stop, that there is no fluke or bad cliché‚ in the set's all too brief 36 minutes. Track after track, Axelrod displays that he has a word tattooed on each hand: on the right, "Restraint"; on the left, "Excess." He employs them judiciously and with extreme prejudice; nothing is left to chance. You can feel the time he spent getting solid takes from virtually every musician here, creating a blend of pop, rock, jazz, classical, and blues that seamless fits into his catalog -- particularly from the time period of 1968-1970. The stylistically elegant swirl of music styles, besotted with poetic excess and shining harmonic truth and beauty, is nearly dizzying. From soul to noirish jazz to baroque pomp and circumstance to vaudeville to R&B, Axelrod digs deep into the box to pry pearl after pearl with titles dedicated symbolically to friends and kindred spirits, like "The Shadow Knows" (for DJ Shadow as much as the old radio program), "The Dr. & the Diamond" (for Dre and producer Diamond), and "Jimmy T" (for James Tolbert). On "Loved Boy" Rawls delivers the vocal performance of his career. All raw and throaty, Rawls climbs over words that are emotionally searing and reaches deep into his heart for a delivery that comes immediately. It seems that Rawls was with Axelrod when the latter received the news that his son had died. Rawls lets the orchestra buoy him up and carry him through the grief into a space that only people who've been touched by this experience can know. The drama in the tune is from the singer, not the song; he turns it and turns it again, over and over in the silence until it cracks; he then pries it open, right from the arrangement, and whispers to what is left of the song until it gives up its secret grief and pain. With the trumpet into and the brass sparely touching the melody, Rawls holds everything in his hands and lets it all drop, effortlessly. Only Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, and Paul Robeson could touch this still point and make it move into another dimension the way Rawls does with Axelrod's charts. And suddenly, it's over, with nothing but a whisper of the CD spinning to a dead stop and silence. The certainty of joy and drama that existed three and a half minutes before has ceased to matter and everything is up in the air -- endless questions and the answers that do come are too fragile to hold up. Why would anybody end a wild, swinging disc like this one with the song "Loved Boy"? It's a teetering question that sends the mind to search in despair for an answer, and the only one forthcoming is simply that Axelrod isn't just anybody; he's nobody, nobody but himself, that is, and this is reason enough for him to air his grief as honestly, gorgeously, and painfully in his arrangements and songs as he needs to. It is truly an unselfish act, too, because there is no place on an album like this one (or maybe any one) to place such a song -- no place but the end, that is. The song is so heartbreakingly beautiful and moving that along with the best performances in Rawls' career, it is one of the most personal and poetically honest songs in Axelrod's repertoire. To have it at all after such a fine piece of emotionally and aesthetically satisfying art has already been presented to listeners is a gift beyond the scope of any musician, critic, or music fan to assess.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek