Jimi Hendrix, Valleys of Neptune (Experience Hendrix, 2010)

As the most celebrated instrumentalist in the history of rock, Jimi Hendrix needs very little along the lines of introduction. The latter portion of his musical career was more than a little bit enigmatic, however. His 1968 double LP Electric Ladyland, generally regarded as his creative apex, was the last studio album released during his lifetime. This does not mean he spent very little time in the recording studio over the last two years of his life; in fact, the opposite is true. The problem is that he left behind a lot of unreleased recordings, and his intentions for them remained vague. Three albums were released posthumously, but that still left quite a bit of unreleased material, and bootleggers had a field day with the leftovers. It may have taken forty years, but the Hendrix estate has obtained full control of the unreleased recordings, and is making a serious effort to get these recordings out to the public in a coherent manner. The first fruit of their labors is Valleys of Neptune, released in March.

Valleys of Neptune consists primarily of Hendrix's first ventures back into the studio after Electric Ladyland, with most of the recordings coming from the winter and spring of 1969. These recordings are noteworthy as they include the final recordings of the classic Jimi Hendrix Experience trio. Hendrix and bassist Noel Redding had fallen out, and Hendrix would eventually replace Redding with old friend Billy Cox while retaining the services of drummer Mitch Mitchell. Four of the recordings feature Cox as the bass player, including the title song. The album does contain a few familiar songs. "Stone Free" was the B-side of an early single, but Hendrix recorded an edgier version in 1969 for possible use as an A-side. A super version of "Fire," originally off of 1967's Are You Experienced?, is included as well; Hendrix had lengthened the guitar solo for live performances, and the Experience worked through the slightly altered arrangement in the studio between shows.

Otherwise, the new material shows Hendrix heading in a more bluesy and much less psychedelic direction. Hendrix scales back the amplifier gimmickry, focusing more purely on his guitar-playing technique. Hendrix was keenly aware of the degree to which top British guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck had embraced the blues, and on the recordings here he seems like he was motivated to respond musically. There are no classics like "Purple Haze" or "Voodoo Chile" here, but the music is solid, and of course the guitar-playing is phenomenal. Tracks like "Hear My Train A Comin'" and "Lover Man" show that Hendrix was well ahead of his peers in terms of technique. Hendrix even beats Clapton at his own game, with a scorching seven-minute instrumental cover of "Sunshine of Your Love."

I'm usually a bit leery of posthumous releases. Unless the material was recorded shortly before the person's death, then the person would have most likely released the tracks if he thought they were good enough. Jimi Hendrix recorded so much material that he didn't live to see released, though, that it's hard to figure out what exactly he was planning. At any rate, there's some strong, bluesy rock on Valley of Neptune that fans of Hendrix will want to hear. Forty years later, it still sounds remarkably fresh.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

"Valleys of Neptune"

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