Album review: Jimi Hendrix's 'Valleys of Neptune'
Fans will be fascinated by these bluesy riffs with the Experience, but this album of unreleased material from the archives doesn't convey much that was unknown.
It's 2010. What could we still want from Jimi Hendrix? He's been gone so long. Yet the master guitarist, Afro-futurist and ultimate psychedelic freak still generates an aura of possibility stronger than what many still-breathing pop stars can maintain. He's the lost rocker most strongly associated with the question "What if?"
What if Hendrix had collaborated with Miles Davis, gotten into synthesizers, put together that big band he'd been planning at the time of his death? Would rock as we know it be different now? What would Hendrix have made of hip-hop? Would he have had a hand in inventing it? Something about his music points so strongly toward unimaginable next accomplishments that it's hard to consign him to the past.
Hendrix's estate was a mess for years, and many shoddy reissues tugged his spirit into dingy corners. With the release of "Valley of Neptune," a new phase begins. This album of previously unreleased studio material is the first in a new campaign from Experience Hendrix, the company led by the artist's stepsister Janie. Deluxe reissues of the three sets Hendrix made with his band the Experience will be released on the same day, and Janie recently said that there's enough unheard stuff in the vault to make for a decade of new releases.
That's a lot of "What ifs." "Valleys of Neptune," however, doesn't add much to that particular conversation. Consisting of tracks recorded with the Experience and a few other players as Jimi was growing disenchanted with the power trio format and preparing to form something else, "Valleys of Neptune" reinforces what fans know well about Hendrix: that he loved the blues; that he was a technical wizard who gained energy from extended jams but always came back to the killer riff; that the foundation he created informed the work of every godlike ax dude who followed, from his peers Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton to Prince, the Edge, Jack White and John Mayer.
Eddie Kramer, the influential engineer who worked extensively with Hendrix and co-produced this set with Janie and archivist John McDermott, told Los Angeles Times music writer Randy Lewis in a recent interview that assembling this material was a "fun, archeological dig." That's the best metaphor.
Of these 12 songs, half are relatively unfamiliar, although a journey into YouTube reveals that hardcore Hendrix fans have uncovered them all before, with different names or in different forms. Two, it seems, including the title track, were assembled by Kramer from sessions that occurred months apart. Most represent the last gasp of the Experience, and you can feel the tension between Hendrix, who strides off into many extended solos and blues vamps, and the rhythm section of Noel Redding (supplanted on bass by Billy Cox on three cuts) and drummer Mitch Mitchell, who stay snappy, seeking pop hooks.
There are reworkings of the Hendrix hits "Stone Free," "Fire" and "Red House" and a gratuitous but pleasurable instrumental cakewalk through Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love." Devotees will revel in these variations, and Kramer's mix makes them feel very alive -- you can almost hear Jimi snapping his gum.
As for the lesser-known songs, the title track is typical Hendrix sci-fi, "Mr. Bad Luck" has a lot of wit and snap, and the others are memorable mostly for what Hendrix accomplishes in their nooks and crannies. His guitar playing is an inexhaustible thrill, even when he's just messing around.
It goes without saying that this isn't the place to start for curious neophytes. Those other new products from Experience Hendrix promise more: the indomitable whomp of "Manic Depression" and "Spanish Castle Magic"; the heavenly drift of "Little Wing"; his definitive reading of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." Those are songs, not just possibilities. But the many Hendrix lovers who will appreciate "Valleys of Neptune" will tell you, with Jimi Hendrix, the possibilities are endless.
"Valleys of Neptune"
Two and a half stars (Out of four)