Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Reviews: Jimi Hendrix's "Valleys of Neptune"

First Published in PressPlus1 Online Magazine:

"Some die too young, some die too old; the precept sounds strange, but die at the right age."
-Friedrich Nietzsche

Was Hendrix's death at age 27 the right time for him to go? Ponder that. One can definitely argue — and I tend to do so whenever dragged into the matter — that he was a one-of-a-kind star, destined to burn out before he faded away. I always felt that what the future had in store for Hendrix was never meant to be found out. Those other early casualties? Most just crashed after several years of cheating death in their drug or alcohol stupors.

I guess I couldn't see Jimi ever becoming washed up. Nay, I couldn't stand the idea. It seemed good for a guy as otherworldly as Hendrix to leave the world before his greatness left him. Hey, no one said the road to rock & roll infamy was paved with candy coloured rainbows and marshmallow cobblestones... unless the one going down the road is tripping on acid. No, it's pockmarked by blood, bones, powders, syringes, broken bottles and other unsightly things.

Sure, Jim Morrison had more to give too, but it would've been progressively more dreadful and embarrassing considering his drug and alcohol appetites. And it would've been expected instead of pitied. Hendrix was too important to die, many told themselves, as his passing reverberated with waves of shock.

Jimi was not renowned as a troubled addict like others who dropped dead in his generation of rockers. Jimi was troubled for sure, but by the shackles of being a creative beacon with a tangled up family past as well as by no longer feeling secure in his own skin as a major star. Mr. Hendrix's chemical dependencies marked his undoing, but the now-stereotypical rockstar death of choking on your own vomit hardly seemed like the type of end he deserved. Morrison naked in a bathtub, heart given out from all the abuse it had taken — I find that very fitting. A poet's death, if you will. A drunk, manic shaman poet's death.

But Hendrix should've been in one of those mystical plane crashes like Otis Redding or his future disciple Stevie Ray Vaughn. Ah never mind, this is getting morbid. The bottom line is that when a significant artist flames out before their time, dies in the throes of youthful genius, croaks before he or she can truly deliver a long, healthy prime or full-bodied career, it's a blessing and a curse for that artist and their fans.

The blessing is that the short time span allows that artist to be crystallized as anyone remembers them best, immortalized when they shone brightest. The curse is that the future becomes littered with various parties who were unrelated to the true meat and bones of that legend, all cashing in off that death in a way. Hey, someone has to or the memories would fade into the sands of time!

This all aids in lifting the memory of the deceased icon to near God-like status. Not to mention, the hodgepodge clutter that becomes the discography, where live performance, studio outtakes, radio appearances, backstage jams and anything else within a microphone's radius becomes fair game to put together new albums with.

For nearly four decades, this has been going on with James Marshall Hendrix. No one can say for sure what Hendrix would have done but the immediate future seemed full of possibilities considering his 1970 flirtation with jazz and funk. Personally, I think the disco era and punk/new wave eras would have been a lean time for Hendrix the artist, though as a musician he'd be a guest on everyone's records no doubt.

It's astounding to note that Hendrix's recording career as a solo artist and/or bandleader was less than four years long, though his popularity post-mortem would have you believe he was around for the entire 1960s decade and then some. As everyone knows, Hendrix was a revolutionary of the rock & roll genre, the guitar, and managed to be the first rocker to ever touch what jazz greats had done previously: Be virtuosic/visionary on their instrument and tremendous as a composer to boot.

Hendrix still stands as the John Coltrane of rock. Coltrane is a controversial figure among jazz purists for his "sheets of sound" hysterics on saxophone and complete radical departure from the standard way jazz had been played. Hendrix didn't change contemporary composition or the way rock was approached so much as he changed the sound, by swaying everyone from "At the Hop" Chuck Berry-impersonating to an electrified, cosmic adaptation of Chicago blues guitar stylings.

He wasn't the first to try that but he was the best and most powerful. Jeff Beck and Clapton seemed timid all of a sudden when this guy strutted onto the scene. He did this through his unmatched ideas, talent as well as being the first to take advantage of improved technology in musical gadgetry, including the fuzz box, distortion pedals, wah-wah pedals, high gain amplifiers (including the super charged Marshall stacks) and other inventions. Plus he used the previous taboo of feedback to his advantage.

His detractors called him airheaded, sexist, macho and full of himself. But while he may have been a gypsy hippie intent on dancing with the drug demons and conquering the ladies but as he tried to be Dylan, Albert King, Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy all rolled into one, he struck upon his own unique psychedelic style.

There are plenty of extraordinary guitarists from that time period but Hendrix had something deeper than your average Alvin Lee, Robin Trower or Jimmy Page. He merged black and white music worlds and embraced music as colourless and raceless, though he often struggled with trying not to seem like some sort of Uncle Tom that didn't care about black listening audiences or radical black politics of the time too.

It was impossible to please everyone of course but Jimi tried his best. After he died, his closest comrades in music oversaw a series of new studio releases of backlog material, primarily his long-time drummer Mitch Mitchell and producer/engineer friend Eddie Kramer. Alan Douglas produced several of these 70s albums but he drew heat for overdubbing new parts onto them and essentially producing them alternately from Hendrix's original intent. Contrary to popular belief, the notorious Annual Post-Mortem Release did not start with Tupac.
When legal wrangling over Jimi's estate and recorded works became a simmering pot of troubles, the situation just got greyer for fans. But 1993 finally settled this when Jimi's father Al gained control and rights over his son's likeness, recorded output and artistic license. Via the formation of the company Experience Hendrix, Ltd., the restoration and repairing of Jimi's catalog began and the cottage industry overseeing Jimi's legacy was born too.

Hendrix’s hometown of Seattle attracts tourists with the claim of him as a native son featured in museums and landmarks alike. For him, there have been many albums of "new" material plus live albums, compilations and several official and unofficial bootleg releases. Too numerous to mention, really. Experience Hendrix has managed Jimi's large archive and through a deal for distribution through MCA, before it was bought up by Universal. They did a bang-up job bringing some cohesion to the playing field.

Currently, Sony distributes Jimi's work through their catalog division label Legacy Recordings, the label that works with re-issues and compilations from its vast array of labels it absorbed from business purchases (the legendary companies Columbia, Epic, Sony BMG and RCA Records for example). Of the major Experience Hendrix initiatives to clearing up Jimi's unfinished work, there was 1997's First New Rays of the Rising Sun, an album that was created to be as faithful as possible to a similarly titled album Hendrix was working on when he died in September of 1970. Previously, it had been spread over 3 different LPs released in the early 70s.

Nowadays, very few who were around Hendrix when he was creating are even alive anymore. His managers Chas Chandler and Michael Jeffery, Experience bandmates Mitchell and Noel Redding, and his Band of Gypsys drummer Buddy Miles have all passed on.

When Hendrix's father Al passed away early last decade, the inheritor of Jimi's estate became his stepsister Janice since most of Jimi's blood relatives had died too. But the Hendrix memorial train has kept rolling and this latest release is the most significant plying of his unreleased treasure trove since First Rays.

Now, that 1997 release did the biggest task of revisiting what Jimi had left on the table throughout his last year of life. This one skimps the trash can a bit more. Super dedicated Hendrix fans might own all this anyway while less dedicated fans, me included, are content to have the important releases and nothing but. I'd give this a chance but only for a handful of the selections.

Let's be frank: posthumous discographies are such a nightmare to follow, so it's all one big trial-and-error process anyway. On Valleys of Neptune, there are 12 cuts, 7 of which have never been released elsewhere. Most of the recordings were done at Hendrix's favourite studio, the Record Plant in New York City.

Hendrix's first single in the UK in November 1966 was a cover of the popular folk song of the day "Hey Joe," while its B-side was one of Hendrix's first compositions, "Stone Free." Valleys of Neptune leads off with a 1969 version of that track from a run-through in April, done probably for rehearsal purposes since it was one of the first sessions for the Jimi Hendrix Experience with Billy Cox as bassist instead of the recently departed Noel Redding. It's more noteworthy for having backing vocalists in Roger Chapman, at the time lead singer of the band Family, and a young Andy Fairweather Low.

With such a sparse setting not augmented by the studio mastery one is used to from Hendrix, this isn't one of the better available renditions of "Stone Free." The title track comes up second, proving to be a rather upbeat, cheerful cut that could have been a cut for the Temptations or one of Motown's other harder R&B acts of the time.

Hendrix had a keen ear for soul despite never fully embracing it, having cut his teeth — and not just on the guitars he played — on the Chitlin Circuit, the nickname given the touring locale of the American Southeast. Playing with pickup and bar bands all the way up to gigs with Little Richard and the Isley Brothers gave Hendrix a better background in the music of African-Americans than most would assume right after hearing his white-favoured rock sludge in the late 60s.

The basic track to "Valleys of Neptune" was recorded in September of '69 while Hendrix was still tinkering with the size and personnel of his backing lineup. The disc's lead single, Elmore James' tune "Bleeding Heart," was first heard in Jimi's hands on the 1972 release War Heroes. Here, none of the Alan Douglas overdubbing mars it.

"Bleeding Heart" features fierce half funk/half blues slide work from Hendrix's guitar, though there are a good half dozen blues covers in Hendrix's career that outshine this one. Stemming from an April of '69 session Billy Cox on bass and Rocky Isaacs on drums, "Bleeding Heart" packs the punch one would hope to find in a blues cover by the unmatched Hendrix.

Following this is "Hear My Train a Coming," a Hendrix original that's appeared on several posthumous releases but never showed up on any 45 or LP during his life. Hendrix's ability to convincingly perform the blues on slide guitar and without proficient amounts of volume and distortion is often overlooked, but his musical ability could never be clouded by his taste for wild sounds. "Hear My Train a Coming" is one of the purer blues tracks he ever laid down and one can see how with one listen.

It was when he allowed the effects, pedals and knobs to be turned up that his grasp of electric blues led him tocreate guitar masterpieces such as "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)", compositions so vivid and on the edge that they defy categorization, though they are arguably responsible for influencing funk, hip-hop, metal and various subgenres to come in rock music.

The cheeky "Mr. Bad Luck" is the furthest dated recording this album goes back to, coming from a May 1967 session at Olympic Studios in London and produced by then-manager and former Animals bassist Chandler. "Mr. Bad Luck" would have made a nice B-side, showing an example of the more humorous elements in Jimi's songs and the only one here that features the Experience in their early days before Hendrix's overarching, often difficult creative process that essentially forced out a frustrated Redding.
One of the prime cuts from this album, alas one of the few genuinely great moments, is when we get Hendrix showing Cream how it's done with "Sunshine of Your Love", sans vocals. Clapton wrote that signature song with Hendrix in mind, in effect making it his tribute to the newest guitar God (Clapton having been proclaimed as such just a year earlier by graffiti-scrawlers of London). So it's no fluke, I suppose, that Hendrix found the tune irresistible and perfect for him.
Before Valleys of Neptune, one of the few times anyone ever heard "Sunshine of Your Love" outside of bootleg form was when on British TV he performed an impromptu version during the final credits of Lulu's variety show. He was doing his own "Voodoo Child" when the plan was enacted, leading to the unknowing producers ending the show in mid-performance. Hendrix did this as an homage to Cream in the fall of '68 when their rather stunning breakup was announced.

Jimi tears the song up from its original state, turning "Sunshine of Your Love" into a real Hendrix "fire and dragon" affair that would make Clapton's simmering original sound like his laid back "J.J. Cale Wannabe" period by comparison. Instead of laying on us stuff we could've heard on some other disc, the album goes into "Lover Man", a heavy and downright greasy track that sounds tailor made for the Stevie Ray Vaughn Texas blues of the 80s. Hendrix toyed around with "Lover Man" every now and again but never found a take he was satisfied with. This particular one comes from the same February 1969 session at Olympic that generated the Cream cover.

Another Hendrix-penned rarity comes in the form of "Ships Passing Through the Night." Drawn from his April 1969 sessions booked at the Record Plant, "Ships Passing Through the Night" is a chunky piece of funk that's a good precursor to what Parliament-Funkadelic picked up on not long after.

Where Valleys of Neptune struggles is how little it offers us in genuinely new content. Anything short of hearing a horn and string section behind him would not be a revelation at this juncture. Haven't we, pardon the pun, experienced it all? The overfamiliarity of his repertoire means we're given two more versions of the standard 1967 classics "Fire" and "Red House".
"Red House," the one and only true 12-bar blues number of heartbreak, cheating and despair that Hendrix achieved, is the better of the two. He channels B.B. King so well on the latter, but has his own manner of playing. It's uncanny and when you can tell a guitarist by hearing their soloing, you know it's something timeless.
"Fire" and "Red House" are done in run-throughs with the Experience at the tail end of their existence in February 1969 but it's always a treat to hear "Red House" since Hendrix uses it to veer off into beautiful solos that are rather of the moment thanks to the tune's slow blues tempo, a conducive groove for any guitarists to go nuts without losing the meter at all. And of course Jimi uses such space wisely.
Also culled from April 1969 is the fine instrumental "Lullaby for the Summer," showing vocals were only a small part of the magic Hendrix could create. He often evoked the gospel business of Curtis Mayfield's R&B guitar playing with his group The Impressions. Hendrix admitted Mayfield was a big influence and one can hear him take it to new heights on tracks like this, not to mention the released ones such as "Castles Made of Sand", "The Wind Cries Mary" and "Little Wing."
Often, the lyrics were a weak point on Hendrix compositions, sometimes being brain-fried ramblings of a gyspy bandit, C-grade poet. So to have instrumentals once in a while was no letdown. From the February '69 sessions at Olympic, "Crying Blue Rain" is derived. It's the twelfth and final track but the driest blues yet, a raw "fly on the wall" feature that contains a light drum backing from Mitchell — a great reflection on his jazz chops- and what sounds like Hendrix fingerpicking his guitar part. If all the tracks were as stellar as "Crying Blue Rain," we'd be dealing with a worthy competitor to the shimmering, incomplete, yet expansive First Rays.
But the abundance of songs that have been heard in multiple forms elsewhere hampers Valleys of Neptune. Even if you don't own any Hendrix outside his recognized studio albums as well as that live document Band of Gypsys, you'll be better off going for Live at the Fillmore East or even Live at BBC. The unreleased material is enjoyable and of a passable fidelity, but only Hendrix's devotees are going to be awed by this album.
Some tracks here have me feeling "ho-hum," asking "So what? Didn't we already know all this?" Others are challenging and just barely reach the gold standard for Jimi while the rest are middling to acceptable versions of stuff heard elsewhere a billion times, therefore redundant. Meld it all together and what you get is a B-minus grade (three stars out of five), which is about as generous as I can allow. 'Scuse me while I skip this, guys...

Track Listing:
1. Stone Free
2. Valleys of Neptune
3. Bleeding Heart
4. Hear My Train a Coming
5. Mr. Bad Luck
6. Sunshine of Your Love
7. Lover Man
8. Ships Passing Through the Night
9. Fire
10. Red House
11. Lullaby for the Summer
12. Crying Blue Rain

Rating: 3/5 stars (B-)

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