Thursday, July 1, 2010

Jimi Hendrix - Valleys Of Neptune

Let’s be honest, we’re gaining nothing new from a “new” Jimi Hendrix record. At this point, we are only able to piece a day-by-day audio picture of the man, cobbled together occasionally in some semblance of a record. There’s a part of me thinks that the man, himself a perfectionist who would record endless takes of a track until he found the right one, would be rolling in his grave at the thought of us still releasing albums from his audio demos, rehearsals, and alternate takes. He died too young to give a clear indication of where he wanted to go next, and judging from what I’ve read, his passing came during a time when different factions in his life were pressuring him to do more with his notoriety. More shows. More money. More responsibility. And all the man really wanted to do was to play his guitar.

I understand why we’re still fascinated by Hendrix because I’m caught up in it as well. The first rock image on my wall was a framed picture of a Jimi Hendrix drawing that one of my Dad’s students gave him after he transferred from their high school to another across the state. My Dad told me the story of Jimi Hendrix-how he could play behind his back and with his teeth and that he died too young, causing some of his students to feel sad-and he let me hang up his gift in my room.

We didn’t have any religious artifacts in my house growing up, so I guess you could call Jimi my first deity that I ever knew.

In kindergarten, we were given a chance to bring a record from home for music time. I brought a “Back To Back Hits” single that Reprise records released featuring “Purple Haze” on one side and “Foxy Lady” on the other. I asked the teacher to play “Foxy Lady” because I thought that Jimi would do a better job at letting Kris Stevenson know that I thought she was foxy looking.

Then she lost her front two teeth later on in the school year and she wasn’t quite so good looking then.

In high school, I almost got into a fight with a guy when he said that Randy Rhoads was the greatest guitar player of all time, a claim that he perpetuated shortly after Rhodes died. Rhoads is a fine guitar player, but what the dipshit couldn’t understand was that there would be no Randy Rhodes without Jimi Hendrix.
Instead of punching him, I told him to check out Jimi’s solo on “Red House” and tell me what he thought. He never brought up the subject again.

The point is all of this made Hendrix a part of me in some way. He asked if we were experienced, but to me, Jimi was a part of my collective experience while I grew up. He was teaching me something and indeed, there’s a lot to learn in the man’s brief catalog during his lifetime.

But there’s very little to learn from his posthumous studio records. For the curious, there are hints of where he may have taken his career-a direction best detailed with the first posthumous release Cry Of Love. But that album is no longer available; instead it’s replaced with the bloated First Rays Of The New Rising Sun, a supposedly more accurate record as it attempts to recreate the (double) album that Hendrix was trying to finish after Electric Ladyland. And since it was released under the direction of two of the album’s original participants-drummer Mitch Mitchell and producer Eddie Kramer-New Rising Sun does remain as Hendrix’s most legitimate posthumous offering.

Valleys Of Neptune is primarily pulled from recording sessions during this same time period. None of the material was intended (as far as we know, anyway) for any proper album-so the sixty-minute collection is just that: a random collection of material from February 1969 to September of that same year. There is one track (“Mr. Bad Luck”) from a 1967 session, and the difference between that track and the others is sonically obvious.

The 1969 sessions are notable because they feature two distinct rhythm sections. The early ’69 sessions feature original Experience member Noel Redding on bass guitar. The bassist and Jimi had clashed a bit during the Ladyland sessions and those creative differences rose again during the recording sessions for Neptune. By the Spring, he was gone, devoting his time (as a guitarist) to his band Fat Mattress who released their debut album later in the fall.

Enter Jimi’s old friend Billy Cox who brings a distinctive and more effective role to the low end of the band. Cox can be heard on Valleys Of Neptune’s first three tracks and they are by far the album’s tightest moments.

Hendrix himself delivers some wonderfully impressive soloing, particularly during “Hear My Train A Comin’” and “Ships Passing Through The Night” with a shit hot version of “Red House” that inexplicably fades out after Jimi delivers an amp destroying solo.

Mitchell and Redding slop through their parts throughout the album with Mitch missing fills and hesitating at inappropriate times while Noel is content with doing repetitive runs with little effort or character. Their performances remind you that Valleys Of Neptune is comprised of leftovers. They’re hardly a discovery, but just a focal point of the latest batch of reissues and commercial tie-ins with the obligatory Rock Band offering.

Yes, Valleys Of Neptune is the debut album of the Hendrix estate’s new executor, stepsister Janie Hendrix. One could easily draw a cynical view of her role and of this release in general, but considering how his legacy was the subject of such morally questionable releases (Crash Landing, Voodoo Soup, Midnight Lightning) and under the direction of a morally deficient executive producer (Alan Douglas), it’s become clear that Jimi’s catalog is best represented under the watchful eye of a family member. For over twenty years, Douglas desecrated the Hendrix name and he failed to understand that to build the Hendrix brand (and yes, that is exactly what it turned into when he passed), you must make sure there is consistency with each new product. Through the effort of Jimi’s late father Al and now with stepsister Janie now at the helm, we have seen his catalog treated with respect and his unreleased material compiled with careful consideration.

That is true with Valleys Of Neptune.

Even with its faults, it doesn’t diminish Hendrix’ allure and it won’t turn long-standing fans away. Sure, the obsessive completists will bitch about technicalities and song choices, but they’d do that anyway, regardless of what is released.

For them, the money shot is the last two songs, “Lullaby For The Summer” and “Crying Blue Rain,” a pair of intriguing instrumentals that are rare enough to make those completists smile and those long-standing researchers like me consider “I wonder where he would have taken this?”

There are rumors that hours of additional material remain in the vaults and that we will probably continue to see additional releases authorized. Prior to Valleys Of Neptune, I would have been concerned with that claim. And while I don’t think that such Hendrix releases will be able to move me like Cry Of Love did or even a good live document would, I’m at least more comfortable with the idea. They’ve done a good job of selecting material where the arrangements are similar and from the same recording period (aside from “Mr. Bad Luck,” which is good, but just out of place here) and I’m finding myself coming back to Valleys Of Neptune more than I expected.

What the album provides is a glimpse of Hendrix work ethic during the first half of 1969, a time when his recording patterns intensified and his relationship with Noel Redding strained as a result. Regardless of any strife he may have been facing personally, Neptune shows ability to put it behind him as soon as the guitar strap went on.

While Jimi’s original quartet of albums released during his lifetime are still the only thing you’ll need to get you to cover your walls with Hendrix posters, Valleys Of Neptune is good enough to ensure that you’ll be able to keep the memorabilia hanging proudly.

This review originally appeared in Glorious Noise.

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