Given Jimi Hendrix’s stature as one of the all-time greatest rock guitarists, the release of any new, previously unreleased material from the 40-years-dead guitar god tends to be cause for celebration. And why the hell not? Much of his barrel-bottom scrapings have more soul in them than the master cuts of more skillful axe-wankers. If you’re going to bliss out on wankery, there were few better practitioners of the art than Jimi Hendrix.
Concurrently, given that more vault material from Hendrix has seen the light of day than artist-authorized, finished recordings, it’s also cause for scrutiny.
Now, I’m not a serious Hendrix bootleg collector, so I can’t speak for the true “rarity” status of any of the material comprising Valleys of Neptune, the first release under the Hendrix estate’s new partnership with Sony’s Legacy imprint. I can tell you, however, that if you’ve bought any of the compilations that Hendrix’s official imprint, Experience Hendrix, has released over the past 13 years via MCA/Universal, you’re already going to be familiar with different versions of up to eleven of the album’s twelve tracks.
The majority of Valleys was recorded between February and May of 1969, which was basically the last gasp of the original Jimi Hendrix Experience. Jimi broke that band up for a reason, so, how much you’ll enjoy this album ultimately depends on how much you already like Hendrix, and how much tolerance you have for hearing familiar songs played in variations that, as you’d probably guess, aren’t quite as assured and confident in their presentation as the classic master recordings.
One song in particular that falls into the latter category to these ears is the one song that has already gained the most attention – “Valleys of Neptune.” Given that Hendrix returned to this recording for some sweetening in May of 1970 after initially laying it down the previous September, it’s a wonder he didn’t try to rerecord it entirely. But then again, the songs he had lined up for First Rays of the New Rising Sun were on a whole different level in terms of feel, energy and themes, and if you’ve heard those tunes, it’ll be clearly evident why Hendrix would have left “Valleys” to collect dust.
On top of this, we get to hear interesting but, again, relatively energy-deficient takes on old stand-bys like “Fire” and “Red House,” a funkier arrangement of Elmore James’ “Bleeding Heart” that foreshadows the awesome First Rays track “Dolly Dagger,” and an over-long instrumental take on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” that was more concisely and entertainingly presented on the 1998 BBC Sessions compilation.
And in the “truth in advertising” department, let’s also call the “new” unearthed tracks “Ships Passing Through the Night” and “Lullaby For the Summer” exactly what they are – embryonic, early versions of “Night Bird Flying” and “Ezy Rider,” respectively. These are fascinating takes, to be sure, but by the time we get to the final track, the lazy instrumental “Crying Blue Rain,” the lingering question becomes: “why didn’t the Hendrix family use the discovery of this cache of material as an excuse to repackage First Rays of the New Rising Sun with revised cover art reflective of what Hendrix himself actually sketched out (documented in Steven Roby’s Black Gold biography), along with these recordings as a ‘bonus’ disc?” Of course, that could be the big plan for the 50th anniversary of his death, but hey, who knows how these folks think?
As we’d hope though, there definitely is a silver lining here, besides the mere fact that it’s Hendrix. The true gem on Valleys of Neptune is a seven-and-a-half minute studio take on what might be the perennial latter day Hendrix concert staple, “Hear My Train A Comin’” – for the first time on an official release, we have a studio version of this classic that can stand on its own alongside the definitive live version we’ve known via its appearances on the 1971 Rainbow Bridge album and the 1994 Blues collection that has earned its place among the best posthumous Hendrix albums.
Fascinating as Valleys of Neptune might be for the serious Hendrix fan, everyone else would do better to go back and rediscover the aforementioned Blues and First Rays of the New Rising Sun collections. After all, the guy’s been dead longer than most of you and your friends have been alive, so it hardly comes as a surprise that most of the primo recordings are already out there somewhere.
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