Guitarist Jimi Hendrix's influence on subsequent generations of rock, blues, and even jazz musicians is inestimable. Hendrix's genre-shattering mix of blues, rock, and soul music, combined with immense instrumental skills, would expand the boundaries of what could be done with a guitar while his constant experimentation with recording – frequently supported by sympathetic engineer Eddie Kramer – would redefine the role of the artist in the studio.
It's hard to believe, too, that the totality of Hendrix's recorded legacy rests on three classic studio albums, a single live disc, and one hurried, patched-together posthumous release. Because of his overwhelming influence and the timeless nature of his music, Hendrix's back catalog is among the most commercially exploited in the history of rock 'n' roll.
While early efforts to cash in on the Hendrix myth resulted in fractured albums like Crash Landing and Midnight Lightning that did little to further the artist's legacy, the 40 years since the artist's death in 1970 has also resulted in a myriad of live, bootleg, and various rarities releases through the years. The catalog restoration that began in the 1990s, after the Hendrix estate regained rights to the guitarist's work, has been mostly uniformly consistent and satisfying for long-time Hendrix fans.
Jimi Hendrix's Valleys of Neptune
Regardless of past editions, the current crop of Hendrix reissues may be the penultimate versions of the guitarist's classic albums. Working through Sony Legacy, which has had success with archive releases, Experience Hendrix is reissuing the three original and a posthumous album in newly re-mastered editions, all of them two-disc sets with a CD and DVD that features interviews and such in a "making of" documentary video. All of the reissues include rare photos and new liner notes that will appeal to the hardcore faithful.
The most exciting news of the 2010 restoration of the Hendrix catalog, though, is the release of a brand new album of Hendrix material, Valleys of Neptune. The material on Valleys of Neptune was recorded in 1969 as the band began working on a sequel to their unbelievable Electric Ladyland album. You'll find different versions of a few old Jimi faves here and a few oft-bootlegged performances, as well as the title track, a previously unreleased (and believed to be un-bootlegged) gem.
Evolution of the Band
Valleys of Neptune offers up twelve tracks that document the evolution of the Jimi Hendrix Experience as well as an evolution in Hendrix's creative thoughts and music-making process. It also represents the changing of the guard, as bassist Noel Redding was replaced by Hendrix's old Army buddy and chitlin' circuit bandmate Billy Cox, who brought more of a blues and soul edge to the songs.
A number of the songs were recorded with outside musicians, including drummer Rocky Isaac, and percussionists Rocki Dzidzornu and Juma Sultan. The result is a collection of disparate material that, while still featuring Hendrix's usual six-string pyrotechnics, widens his sound towards a more rhythmic, sometimes exotic, and simply explosive percussive sound. A number of songs on Valleys of Neptune will be familiar to the aficionado, performances like "Stone Free" and "Fire" heard here in different ideations.
With Cox's fluid basslines driving the rhythm alongside Mitchell's cymbal-heavy brushwork, this take of "Stone Free" takes on a jazzy coat of paint, Hendrix's guitarwork including a few elegant flourishes played along with the trademark roaring stringbending of his solos. This "Fire" is a more rattletrap construct, pushing Redding's backing vocals higher in the mix where they sit uncomfortably next to Hendrix's more soulful, hepcat reading of the lyrics.
Here My Train A Comin'
Hendrix's classic take on the blues, "Here My Train A Comin'," had been a staple of the guitarist's live set for years, but remained unreleased until the posthumous 1973 album Midnight Lightning. While the producer stripped Redding and Mitchell's instrumentation from that version, they are restored here in all their glory. The result is a swirling maelstrom of raging psych-blues guitar, crashing drumbeats, and bludgeoning bass notes. "Red House," another live favorite, is slowed down, its blues edge amped up and driven with some of Hendrix's finest Delta-inspired licks, this version offering a more subtle take on the blues.
Of the previously unreleased material, a few songs really stand out. The aforementioned title track is a real find. Featuring some of Hendrix's most brilliant lyrical imagery, his vocals sound positively energized, his fretwork dazzling, at times mimicking the Cox/Mitchell rhythms while skittish lead notes dance and dive throughout the mix. This is as mainstream a classic rock track as you'll find, and could have been a hit if it had been released in 1970 upon its completion.
Valleys of Neptune includes a pair of notable cover songs, the first of which – an inspired take on blues slide-guitar legend Elmore James' "Bleeding Heart" – takes the original song into an entire different dimension, expanding the instrumental breaks and infusing the original raucous blues sound with wide swaths of psychedelic-tinged guitar solos, locomotive riffs, and a rhythmic, driving background created by Cox and drummer Rocky Isaac. The band's take on Cream's signature song "Sunshine Of Your Love" is phenomenal, a blisteringly heavy extension of the power-trio aesthetic with noisy guitar solos, the familiar repeating riff, and exotic percussion courtesy of Mitchell and Rocki Dzidzornu.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Is Valleys of Neptune worth purchasing? The answer, without hesitation, is a resounding 'yes'! The album collects a dozen great lost Hendrix performances, showcasing the guitarist's instrumental and songwriting skills in their prime, and featuring pristine digital re-mastering courtesy of engineer Kramer. In too any ways to count, Valleys of Neptune is the holy grail of Hendrix reissues, an album that suffers only slightly from its patchwork makeup, but provides too much purely cathartic music-making to disregard. (Sony Legacy Recordings, released March 9, 2010)
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