There's a pesky ghost in a ruffled rainbow shirt and he just won't leave us alone.
His name is Jimi Hendrix and since his death nearly 40 years ago, he's gone from rock paragon to boomer nostalgia mascot to video game avatar -- and he's sounded pretty great the entire time.
And while the iconic guitarist's tie-dyed influence on American music has refused to fade, Tuesday marks a new wave of Hendrixophilia: the release of "Valleys of Neptune," a splendid collection of recordings, most from his final days with the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
It's a warning shot. "Valleys" will be released on Tuesday, alongside other remastered original Hendrix albums. Reports say that the late guitarist's estate is preparing a forthcoming anthology, too. Meantime, blogs continue to churn with rumors of a Rock Band video game that will give players the opportunity to channel their idol -- a notion that feels well suited to Hendrix's pioneering sense of techno-spiritualism.
Sound familiar? The entire campaign echoes the neo-Beatlemania of 2009: Repackage a legendary artist by offering products to different generations at various price points and hope the dollars roll in.
"Valleys of Neptune" kicks things off with 12 unreleased Hendrix recordings, most from 1969. And yes, in the age of file-sharing, "unreleased" is a relative term, but these versions should sound familiar only to the savviest of bootleg aficionados.
But with this new release comes plenty of old-fashioned mythologizing. On the album cover, our hero's portrait is superimposed over a billowing cloud of stardust as if to suggest that this isn't merely an album, but a transmission from some cosmic afterlife.
That's a tough myth to debunk. The disc's big revelation is its title track, with guitar chords skipping and skidding across the beat, Hendrix bellowing about his alien origins, "Mercury liquid and emeralds shining, showing me where I came from."
Some of Hendrix's best work evoked a limitless galaxy, a theme that's propelled some of America's most adventurous black musicians -- from Sun Ra to Funkadelic to OutKast. But the man also knew when to stay earthbound, and does just that with another unreleased tune, "Ships Passing Through the Night." It's a rolling, robust blues, his guitar swathed in an underwater warble that never blurs his human touch.
"Hear My Train a Comin' " unloads a similar bag of thrills, the guitarist wailing away while his rhythm section lurches along behind him. And that's really the draw of these recordings in 2010. They sound like three dudes playing together in a room.
Except when they aren't. A few of these takes ("Mr. Bad Luck," "Lover Man," "Crying Blue Rain") were touched up by original Experience members Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell in 1987. It isn't a travesty, considering that Hendrix never shied from studio trickery. Having pushed so many envelopes in the realm of technology and timbre, one gets the sense that he would have loved Auto-Tune if he were still making music today.
Here's some more potential heresy: Hendrix's brisk, instrumental read of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" bests the original, with guitars sand-blasting away at the version forever calcified in our hive mind. Hendrix almost bests himself, too, with a sprawling eight-minute version of "Red House."
Why does this stuff still sound so good? Hendrix can no longer shock us with kaleidoscopic garb or onstage bravado, but his music still manages to violate our expectations with a subtlety that feels like magic. He remains strangely virtuosic, his playing full of sweet micro-imperfections. His fingers tease the tempo. He pulls notes back, rushes others forward, coaxing now-familiar noises from his Stratocaster as if it were a series of miraculous accidents.
You can hear the music happening -- a distinct, 21st-century pleasure that feels both quaint and mysterious.
JIMI HENDRIX LOST TRACKS KEPT SECRET
Jimi Hendrix's stepsister has defended her decision to keep the rock legend's latest release, Valleys of Neptune, a closely guarded secret - fearing Internet leaks.
Janie Hendrix, the president/CEO of Experience Hendrix, admits she only ever played rough cuts of songs her famous brother recorded in 1969 but never released in the confines of her car - because she worried about the tracks falling into pirates' hands.
Hendrix, who also helped produce the album of lost tracks with her brother's longtime technician Eddie Kramer, tells Celebrity Access.com's Larry LeBlanc, "I let my kids hear it (album). My youngest is a techie. He asked, 'Mum, can I download it on my computer?'
"I said, 'No'. (He said), 'Mum, you don't trust me.' 'It's not that I don't trust you but, if you want to listen to it, you ride with me in my car, and we will listen to it.'"
The album will be the first release as part of a new deal between Experience Hendrix and Universal Music Publishing Group, and Janie Hendrix can't wait for fans to hear it: "Valleys of Neptune is an incredible album. It sounds as if it was recorded this year. It's fresh. It's new. It's exciting. It doesn't sound as if it was recorded in the '60s. It sounds as if Jimi here with us today and creating music still."
The album hits stores and the Internet next week.
REVIEW: “VALLEYS OF NEPTUNE,” JIMI HENDRIX
For a guy who only released three or four albums in his lifetime, Jimi Hendrix is certainly more prolific in death. No less than 10 different albums of new studio material have emerged in the 40 years since Hendrix’s death, and today we see the release of the 11th such album, Valleys of Neptune.
It’s part of a joint effort by the Hendrix estate and Sony, cataloging and reissuing everything that Hendrix recorded. Valleys of Neptune contains seven previously unreleased studio tracks and five new recordings of some well known songs.
A lot of this stuff was recorded in 1969 after the release of Electric Ladyland using a variety of back-up musicians. The original Experience (Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass) play on many of the cuts, including “Fire” and “Red House,” cut for Hendrix’s 1967 debut Are You Experienced?
There are also a couple of excellent cover tunes, including an Elmore James blues, “Bleeding Heart,” originally released on 1972’s War Heroes but included here as an alternate, extended version. The fireworks really go off on Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love,” played as an instrumental with Jimi’s guitar pyrotechnics taking center stage.
One of the great “lost” Hendrix tracks, “Valleys of Neptune,” shows up here with a remix that makes it sparkle. Mitchell drums on this one, but they’re joined by Hendrix’s long-time bassist Billy Cox from the Band of Gypsys – it’s a nice signature tune for Hendrix, with typically spacey lyrics and breathtaking guitar runs, easily the best of the unreleased material.
As an album, Valleys of Neptune is naturally not very cohesive: the majority of this material sounds like rehearsals obviously never intended to show up on a commercial release, or at least unpolished early takes. Even so, you can hear the obvious craftsmanship that went into making music back then, a trait sorely lacking on many releases by today’s top rock practitioners. The Hendrix people promise there’s a lot more left in the vault, and I wonder what the quality of that material may be.
At any rate: this is Hendrix, man. If you’ve ever wondered about this guy’s legend, Valleys of Neptune may not be the place to start exploring. But if you’re in the mood for some good, old-fashioned psychedelic rock, put it on and fire up a fatty – this music will certainly take you on a little trip.
Click to view image: '“VALLEYS OF NEPTUNE” - album cover'
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