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Saturday, March 27, 2010

CD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Valleys of Neptune

Jimi Hendrix - Valleys of Neptune
2010 Sony Music Entertainment
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Michael Jackson's passing still fresh on our minds, the industry term "legacy performer" is uttered more than ever these days. While largely attributed to artists who now hold sonic splashdowns from unseen stages on the other side, a legacy performer could easily be Elvis Costello as much as Elvis Presley--one still with us, the other the recipient of posthumous re-coronations twice a year.

In the case of Jimi Hendrix, the music world continues to obsess over the impulsive talent this man congealed into any amp able to sustain the introspection woven from his Fender. Many writers say Jimi Hendrix was a perfectionist, but if you watch his Woodstock performance with less critique of his fingers on the frets, it might be said the cat was pure gut. Then again, you're talking about a reel-to-reel analog player who never had the opportunity to play with Pro Tools and sweep out any dust from his playing, so yeah, he probably was hard on himself. For this writer's money, though, the more roughshod the guitar resonance, the better--a stance changed over the years as a one-time proponent of precise solos and flawless arpeggios.

Thus it presents both joy and confusion to walk up to fellow music aficianados lately and query, "Hey, man, did you hear the new Jimi album?" Yes, the typical answer rings to the tune of "Nice trick from the grave, dude..." However, it's 2010 and we're discussing a kinda-sorta new trick bag from the late Jimi Hendrix, Valleys of Neptune.

Scuttlebutt has it the more devout of Jimi Hendrix's followers have been pressing the powers of attorney watching over Jimi's estate to hand over the goods. In this case, twelve quasi-locked-up recordings following the Electric Ladyland sessions which offer a transitional, er, experience following a trifecta of psychedelic bliss which needs no further substantiation.

Like the Beatles, a suddenly "new" song from the vault of Hendrix makes instant headlines, which is the primary reason Valleys of Neptune has emerged. Smart money at work here, though. Instead of launching a mass campaign behind "Valleys of Neptune" the single, a more digestible (though still capitalistic in nature) enterprise comes forth in this rough trade listening session where the listener is subject to some of the last known recordings featuring The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Meshed together as if we're all privy to a sitdown with the band at work on their future.

Sadly, history dictated a different course for Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding and Jimi. Already having to suffer a split with original bassist Redding, the next inception of The Experience was apparently on a full-tilt boogie with Billy Cox by the time these Valleys of Neptune sessions were captured. Despite the fact there's a misnomer at play under Valleys of Neptune's premise, the collected presentation still tells a story.

Part of it is exhibited in these round robin demos and studio jams cleaned and remixed by famed mixing mogul Eddie Kramer, who presents Valleys of Neptune more concise and tactile than anyone could've expected. Grimy and flumpy, these songs are hardly perfection, yet Kramer glues the pieces and shines them to the point Jimi and company sound like they're nailing their business to the sheets in their sleep. Jimi's uptempo blues screeching on "Lover Man" resonates on its own merits with some of the most footloose soloing his fans have ever heard.

"Ships Passing Through the Night" offers listeners multiple layers of rowdy distortion and clean picking through blues, funk and psych measures before Jimi juices up. Listen for the amplified wah during the fadeout of "Ships" and recognize he who birthed Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption." If you were sick to your stomach the first time you ever heard Axis: Bold as Love, get ready for similiar tingles in the gut. Jimi's the best of all-time, even when he's not around to judge if this work is worthy of himself.

Another part of the saga on Valleys of Neptune is the changeover between Redding and Cox, as both are represented here. That's Redding fielding the chorus on the stripped-down, February, '69 version of "Fire" and his rambling bass is unmistakable. By contrast, Billy Cox gales through slide notes on the syncopation-filled "Stone Free" on this album, as well as the magical mystery tune in celebration, "Valleys of Neptune." Though the "Stone Free" offered here has officially been released in the past on the 2000 Hendrix box set, the difference is Cox on this album's version, effectively washing Redding out through overdubs from the box set version. Can you say cuh-cuh-controversy?

"Valleys of Neptune" itself had manifested in part as a brief excerpt featured on the Lifelines radio show box set. The cut being offered on this album is obviously put together from broken pieces, yet Kramer's final mix is a sheer blessing. You can hear bits of "Crosstown Traffic" leaking into "Valleys of Neptune" along with other slices out of Are You Experienced and Electric Ladyland, which may explain why Jimi shelved it. Still, it has a long-ago funk rock vibe which Fat Albert would've grooved to if he didn't have his own junkyard band.

One of the pumping standouts on Valleys of Neptune is "Lullaby for the Summer," which provide the innards of "Ezy Rider" in instrumental form, yet it's jacked up fun listening to the original constituents of The Experience plow and ride together. This three-man rumble was undoubtedly a personal and private moment before surfacing for public consumption four decades later. Ditto for the terrific cover of Elmore James' "Bleeding Heart," which sucks you in the minute Jimi coaxes "Hear me, people, hear me, people..." Get on the nearest butterscotch cloud and float away with the soulful southpaw on this one.

"Red House" checks in again on Valleys of Neptune as well as a crazy fun instrumental cover of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love." The former is another exhibition clinic from Jimi, who changes up a few scales. His nod to Eric Clapton on the latter is just sicko to hear him downpick a long succession of clapped improv notes set to congo lines, then rip out a solo which--sorry to say with all due respect, Mr. Clapton--far supercedes.

Passed off as all brand-new material, don't be guilded by Valleys of Neptune, particularly if you're a devout collector. Do pick it up, however, because "Bleeding Heart," "Mr. Bad Luck," "Hear My Train a Comin'" and "Crying Blue Rain" are worth the trip just by themselves. The rest of this expository submission--a lot of which was added and dressed up by Mitchell and Redding in 1987--is proof positive Jimi Hendrix is a legacy perfomer. In this life and somewhere beyond the Spanish castles.

What else is the estate holding from us?

Rating: ****1/2


Evan said...

Hey I agree...great review. Bleeding Heart and Lover Man are my 2 favs. Valleys they did a chop job on cutting out the real intro and middle guitar parts but still overall very exciting!!

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

Thanks for your comment, Evan! I really love those two songs two. I figured "Valleys" was a bit and pieces assembly job, which couldn't have been a very enviable task,'ll either be praised a hero or condemned as a butcher...glad it was Eddie Kramer, who knew how to capture Jimi from the beginning, getting the job

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