Jimi Hendrix's contributions to rock & roll and blues music are unquestioned and enormous. As a guitarist, Hendrix developed styles of playing and ways of coaxing sounds out of his instrument that are still being studied and puzzled over almost 40 years after his death. His incorporation of the blues idiom into hard rock is as influential, if not more so, than contemporaries like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, both of whom had to stand in silence before Hendrix's talents.
Released in 1968, Electric Ladyland was the third album from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and the last studio album to be released during the guitarist's lifetime. An ambitious two-record set recorded with engineer Eddie Kramer at The Record Plant in New York City, Electric Ladyland is often overlooked in favor of the slew of singles that flew from the grooves of Are You Experienced? Electric Ladyland not only includes Hendrix's best performances, it may also be the truest representation of his musical vision. Working with the sympathetic Kramer, Hendrix and crew pushed the boundaries of music and the studio as they existed at the time, incorporating new techniques and technologies into the recordings and, in effect, turning the studio into another instrument in the hands of the talented Hendrix.
Jimi Hendrix Experience's Electric Ladyland
Many of the songs on Electric Ladyland are instantly familiar to even the casual Hendrix fan, and many have earned a place in the classic rock canon. There are a few undiscovered gems to be discovered, though, hidden between the better-known songs. Bassist Noel Redding's "Little Miss Strange," although not in the same league as Hendrix's best material, is an entertaining period piece nonetheless. Redding's fey vocals are a bit weak, but appropriately poppy given the song's Piccadilly Circus frippery, while Hendrix's guitarwork here is often sadly overlooked. Ranging from taut circular riffs and psychedelic swirls to fuzzed-out mindscrews and rockabilly-tinged tremolo, the guitarist rides the song all over the stylistic rainbow.
Earl King's "Come On (Let The Good Times Roll)" is the sort of houserockin' R&B rave-up that Hendrix performed during his early-1960s stint on the "chitlin' circuit." With raging guitars set against a solid backbeat, Hendrix's soulful vocals, thick guitar tone, and a blizzard of notes turn his original arrangement of the song into a real barn-burner. The up-tempo psych-rocker "Gypsy Eyes" also features a stellar six-string workout, the band struggling to keep up with Hendrix's split-second time-changes, 180-degree scrape-and-burn solos, and vocal gymnastics.
Baroque Pop & Jazz-Fusion
Mixing baroque pop with mid-1960s British psych-rock, "Burning Of The Midnight Lamp" is both majestic and mind-blowing, Hendrix's high-pitched (altered?) guitar tone buzzing around your head like a hive full of angry bees looking for their final target. "Rainy Day, Dream Away" could pass for an improvisational jazz-fusion jam, with Freddie Smith's horn blastin' away in the corners, Mike Finnigan's chanting keyboards, and Buddy Mile's rapidfire drumbeats all supporting Hendrix's imaginative and fluid guitar wails.
Of the more familiar tunes here, the reckless "Crosstown Traffic" is a long-time fan favorite, the song benefiting from judiciously-applied studio wizardry, Kramer and Hendrix creating a claustrophobic, chaotic vibe for the song. Hendrix's six-string embellishments defy any sort of electronic magicks, the guitarist's tortured axe set on 'stun, wither, and disintegrate' as he tosses off frantic licks and then kicks them senseless with jackboot riffs.
All Along The Watchtower
Using electrified Mississippi Delta blues as its foundation, Hendrix's stirs up the ghosts of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson with the blistering psychedelic-blues gumbo that is "Voodoo Chile." Guest musicians Steve Winwood and Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane) add their talents to this powerful performance; Winwood with his very cool, stately, and very British keyboard riffs and Casady with a HEAVY, three-ton bass line that anchors Hendrix's instrumental flights of fancy. Winwood proves to be an excellent foil for the guitarist, the two maestros dueling with stinging solos that push the song's swamp-blues roots into the stratosphere (and beyond).
Hendrix's inspired cover of Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower" has become a classic rock staple, and rightfully so. Hendrix's builds upon the scribe's original framework with what could be considered one of his best vocal performances, coupled with a couple of brief, scorching guitar solos that are short, sharp shocks of sound and fury. The main guitar part is pure unadulterated genius that starts strong and builds to an epic crescendo, while the band hangs back and adds just the right amount of backbone to the song.
Listen to Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower" and you're hearing one of the greatest rock & roll performances of all time. But the album-closing "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" comes mighty close to matching it. Hendrix brings even more Delta grit, electricity, and explosive power to bear as he walks tall like Paul Bunyan, chopping down mountains with his bare hands.
His urgent solos sounding all the world like Robert Johnson's hellhounds are hot on his trail but he don't care, nosirree, 'cause the music rips and roars and just carries Hendrix away to heights that no guitarist has managed to scale in the decades since. An ebony Icarus flying on wings of steel, Hendrix soars through the flames of the sun and returns to earth with his soul only slightly tinged.
The "deluxe collector's edition" of Electric Ladyland includes a bonus DVD featuring the documentary At Last The Beginning...The Making of Electric Ladyland. Originally created in 1997 as part of the Classic Albums television series, the film includes interviews with Experience members Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, manager Chas Chandler and Eddie Kramer, all reminiscing about the making of this classic album. This version has been expanded to almost an hour and a half, featuring nearly 40 minutes of new interviews from folks like Buddy Miles, Steve Winwood, Jack Casady, and others.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
It's worth picking up this "collector's edition" for the Hendrix fan, if only to add the expanded and out-of-print documentary DVD to your collection. For those younger readers who have yet to truly "experience Hendrix," Electric Ladyland is as good a place as any to start. It's a phenomenal album, one of the true milestones of both classic rock and blues-rock...influential, groundbreaking, and enduring, this is the musical legacy that Jimi left us, and you won't find any better. (Experience Hendrix/Universal Music, released December 9, 2008)