Why is Jimi Hendrix like a menorah? Well, that legendary ancient candleabra in the Holy Temple supposedly had only enough oil to burn for a single evening, but wound up going strong for eight nights, a miracle that Jews throughout the world commemorate every Hanukkah. Hendrix's career as an active recording artist lasted only four years, from 1966 until his death in 1970. But even though it's going on 475 months since his last studio session, the guy's been putting out new records for the last four decades, a miracle celebrated by fans, retailers, and music biz execs every time another set of unheard tracks is unleashed on the public.
For years, Hendrix's recordings were sliced, diced, julienned, tampered with, and occasionally all but ruined by heavy-handed producers who, for instance, erased a drum track laid down in 1969, and overdubbed a new track by the drummer of the Knack instead (yes, this actually happened). The situation was rectified when the Hendrix family gained control of his catalog in the late '90s, and started organizing and coherently releasing the seemingly bottomless well of material he'd left behind.
The well appeared to finally be running dry with the release of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, a 4 CD box set of mostly unreleased music, in 2000. Over the last decade, a handful of live concerts and some amorphous instrumental in-the-studio jamming has been about all we've heard from the most prolific dead artist in rock history. Most of what surfaced was so marginal that it was only made available online through the collectors-only Dagger Records label.
But astonishingly -- miraculously, even -- there's still oil in the Hendrix menorah. Valleys Of Neptune, a new album of 12 never-before-released Hendrix studio recordings, mostly cut in early 1969, is due out March 9. And it's not like this stuff is aimless noodling or informal jams. These are completed tracks, with a minimum of posthumous doctoring.
The backstory: some of the recordings were intended for the follow-up to the landmark 1968 LP Electric Ladyland, and then shelved when that project morphed into the never-completed double album First Rays Of The New Rising Sun. Other tracks were recorded at rehearsals for what turned out to be the last concert tour by the original Jimi Hendrix Experience, with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. And there are also a few early run-throughs of songs that Jimi went back to and further developed later on.
If you're thinking that the dozen tracks here are new songs you've never heard before, think again. Unfamiliar titles like "Ships Passing Through The Night" and "Lullaby For The Summer" are early versions of "Night Bird Flying" and "Ezy Ryder," respectively. Tracks like "Mr. Bad Luck" and "Lover Man" may not be as well known as "Purple Haze" or "Crosstown Traffic," but they have been heard before in different versions. A remake of "Stone Free" was released in the '70s but is now shorn of its posthumous overdubs. In short, Valleys Of Neptune isn't a "lost album" that Hendrix would have considered putting out in this form at the time it was recorded. To their credit, the estate isn't making any such claims. And given that Hendrix has been dead since long before the Jonas Brothers were a gleam in their pappy's eye, I'm willing to cut him some slack.
As for the music itself -- well, there's no need to apologize for anything here. Just about the entire album is first-rate Hendrix. Reworkings of warhorses like "Fire" and "Stone Free" damn near surpass the original versions. On a slowed-down and extended version of the 12-bar blues "Red House," he crams so many ideas into each measure that it seems like he's straining against the limits of the songform itself. A cover of Elmore James' "Bleeding Heart" is twice as long and less polished but more exciting than the take first heard on 1972's War Heroes. An instrumental jam on Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love" meanders a bit, but it's still pretty cool to hear.
The centerpiece of the album is the title track, which Hendrix worked on intermittently throughout 1969 and '70; the vocal was recorded four months before he died. A fragment of it, with muddy sound and different instrumental backing, briefly surfaced on a box set in the early '90s, but now it's here in all its pristine glory. And the only question is, why did it take forty freakin' years to surface? Like much of the material intended for the album he was working on at the time of his death, it's less metallic and pounding than some of his earlier work, with more of a funky, propulsive edge. It's not a showcase for his instrumental prowess -- it doesn't contain an extended solo -- but it's ample proof of what a great songwriter he was.
The most impressive thing about Valleys Of Neptune is that it sounds like a Jimi Hendrix album, as opposed to a collection of random barrel-scrapings. And in this Lady Gaga-saturated age, sadly lacking in new guitar gods (say "John Mayer" and I'll thump you), isn't that enough? I'm not saying it's as essential as the three studio albums he released during his lifetime (Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love, and Electric Ladyland, all of which are also being reissued with bonus "making of the album" DVDs). And I'd also place it below the 1970 live set Band Of Gypsys and the posthumously assembled First Rays Of The New Rising Sun. But if you've got those five albums -- which belong in any rock fan's collection -- this would be an excellent place to start digging deeper.
And according to the Hendrix family, Valleys Of Neptune is merely the amuse bouche for a veritable smorgasbord of "new" Hendrix albums that's scheduled to continue for at least the next decade. The catalog continues to grow. The legacy burns brightly. The miracle continues. Let us rejoice. And pass the latkes.