Thursday, March 11, 2010

jimi hendrix "valleys of neptune" review

To commemorate the upcoming 40th anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s tragic death in September, 1970, a new album of unreleased Hendrix studio material, “Valleys of Neptune,” was just released. In addition to “Valleys of Neptune,” the original three studio albums released during Hendrix’s lifetime were reissued (remastered and with bonus material). There’s been a decades long gap since any “new” material from the Hendrix archives has been released. “Valleys of Neptune” is the product of “Experience Hendrix” - the family owned (Hendrix’s father and step-sister) business that now controls the rights to his music.

Valleys of Neptune is an interesting release - basically a dozen tracks, the bulk of which document the final recording sessions of the Jimi Hendrix Experience (Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding, and drummer Mitch Mitchell) in early 1969 - before they disbanded later that year. In that context, the material from those sessions reflects the group at it tightest and most engaged artistically with the sound. Within six months of these sessions, Redding would move on to other things - replaced for the most part with Billy Cox (an Army buddy that Hendrix called up to New York when his relationship with Redding unraveled).

Most of the material on Valleys of Neptune - including the title cut - will be familiar to Hendrix fans. Valleys of Neptune is the product of two separate sessions. On first one Hendrix recorded the vocal and guitar tracks in 1969. Then, in 1970, he played it with his band. The album cut released this week is a mix of those two session (separated by a year in time). In addition, three songs - “Mr. Bad Luck,” “Lover Man,” and “Crying Blue Rain” - include tracks recorded by Redding and Mitchell in 1987, 17 years after Jimi died. The mystery here isn’t the reworking (because at least it was done by the original musicians) - but why it took an additional 23 years to release?!

But that bit of studio reworking is minor (and understandable). The album sound is incredibly fresh and immediate. It’s an almost “you are there” sense of watching the studio sessions unfold. One of the highlights was the 6:45 minute cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” - powerful stuff. Put that side by side, any day, with Jimi’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner! Then there’s the amazing 7:29 minute “Hear My Train A Comin’!” It easily the best example of the band at it most dynamic core! The song was done in a single take, no overdubs, no studio tricks! Other great tracks on the album include familiar reworks of “Stone Free” and “Red House.”

For a Hendrix fan Valley of Neptune is a must get. In addition to the extensive liner notes, it includes an extensive essay by John McDermott on the back story to the sessions and the evolution of the songs. On the other hand, for someone just approaching Hendrix for the first time, the remastered “Are You Experienced” or “Electric Ladyland” may be a better choice. Growing up, I wore out the grooves on both those classic albums - and now look forward to picking up the reissued copies. Experience Hendrix has also signaled that more music (predominately via concert performances) from the archives will be forthcoming. Looking forward to it!

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