Valleys of Neptune is not the Holy Grail, and it doesn’t need to be. That already exists anyway, and it is celebrated in spectacular fashion with the deluxe CD/DVD reissues of the four proper alums that preceded and followed these ’69 sessions.
Get excited. There is a new Jimi Hendrix album fully comprised of previously unreleased material.
I know I was excited when I first heard the news of Valleys of Neptune, which takes the name of one of Hendrix’s most widely bootlegged tunes. I was, in fact, so excited, I caught myself reconsidering the concept of Intelligent Design and felt the existence of Santa Claus was, all of a sudden, conceivable. Then I actually heard the album and am now here to tell you about it.
Get excited, but don’t get too excited. Here’s the deal: Valleys of Neptune is not, as some of the early buzz is incorrectly reporting, the last material Hendrix was working on before his death in September, 1970. Nor is it a collection of polished or even complete studio sessions; rather, it is a smattering of assorted jams, sketches and works-in-progress -- some of which would be repurposed on Hendrix’s posthumous album, the one he was working on just before his death (of which more later). On the other hand, this is new, previously unreleased music by Jimi Hendrix! That alone is cause for unrestrained celebration, and the arrival of this album is -- and will remain -- one of the significant musical stories of 2010. And there’s more: in order to properly commemorate the occasion (and the fortieth anniversary of Hendrix’s passing), all of the original studio albums are being reissued with the deluxe remaster treatment, including bonus DVDS (of which more later).
It would be understandable to assume that Valleys of Neptune represents Hendrix’s final recordings, and, again, it’s disconcerting to see this release erroneously being described as such. In fact, the songs are mostly culled from a series of sessions in early ’69, more than a year before Hendrix laid down his final tracks. Fans will recall that the double-album Hendrix was unable to complete before his premature departure from this planet was released posthumously in as faithful a fashion as possible (first as the single album The Cry of Love and much later, and more satisfactorily, as the double-album length CD First Rays of the New Rising Sun).
These sessions do represent the last occasions that the original Jimi Hendrix Experience recorded together, and bassist Billy Cox, who would replace Noel Redding, can be heard for the first time on several songs. The press materials describe Valleys of Neptune as “12 fully realized studio recordings”. That is not exactly a misnomer, but it’s misleading. Again, this is Jimi Hendrix material recorded in the studio which means, by definition, it is serious stuff. But in the interest of accuracy, these are mostly rough, unfinished and occasionally unfocused cuts. If that sounds like semantic nitpicking, it is offered out of deference to Hendrix: not for nothing, but these recordings were all in the can many months before Hendrix died, and there are good reasons none of them, in their existing form, made it onto an album before now.
While listening to the new songs repeatedly over the course of a week, I kept thinking how revelatory they would be to watch as much as hear. If this studio footage had been caught on video, it would offer a fortuitous chance to see Hendrix (and his band mates) testing out material and taking the creative process for a test drive. As they exist, these tracks should best be received, and appraised, as the interesting and often quite worthwhile results of typically inspired jam sessions. Also interesting, if not especially illuminating, is the opportunity to enjoy Hendrix revisiting some of his famous songs. The set kicks off with “Stone Free”, a significant song that was the B-side of Hendrix’s first single, “Hey Joe”. As is the case on all 12 tracks, the guitar playing is, unsurprisingly, astonishing. It will be interesting to see how many aficionados feel this, or any of the other new versions improve upon the originals. For my money, they do not come close (“Stone Free” lacks the dangerous and almost desperate vocals, while “Fire”, incredibly, sounds almost tame and misses the machine gun ferocity Mitch Mitchell employed so indelibly on the debut album).
The results are more compelling when Hendrix updates two songs that were (and, based on his live performances, remained) crucial stepping stones for his rapid development, “Red House” and “Hear My Train a Comin’”. The former gets slowed down and dragged out for more than eight minutes, featuring the full spectrum of Hendrix’s dexterity and imagination. The latter, heretofore best represented as an acoustic blues, gets the plugged in and amped up live-in-the-studio treatment. Both songs are triumphant and illuminate the ways Hendrix continued to utilize traditional blues in the service of his ambitious but sophisticated acumen. Another concert staple, the band’s aggressive interpretation of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” is a launching pad for Hendrix: for almost seven minutes he employs many of his favorite tricks, toying with tempo that at one instant echoes the original, stops on a dime, and veers off into entirely other places. The other cover is a spirited update of the great Elmore James’s “Bleeding Heart” that splits the difference between sloppy and inspired, just as one would expect (and hope) for from a jam session.
The highlight of the album has to be the title track which, of all the songs, comes closest to standing alongside Hendrix’s better material. It is immediately evident that the close-but-not-quite version we hear is the result of considerable work, and the liner notes confirm that it had evolved over time from a solo demo. The ethereal drone and cymbal wash that introduce the track recalls “Angel”, but the gears shift and the guitar soars into the main melody, full of the clean, crisp pyrotechnics we associate with vintage Hendrix. The lyrics are a tad half-baked (this was, after all, 1969) and it’s intriguing to imagine how this song would (should?) have worked as in instrumental.
The rest of the songs feature sounds and motifs that would resurface on subsequent work. For instance, “Ships Passing Through The Night” is an early run at “Night Bird Flying” and “Lullaby for the Summer” would eventually coalesce as the superior “Ezy Ryder”. “Lover Man” is based on B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” and “Mr. Bad Luck”, which would mutate into “Look Over Yonder” is in fact a holdover from Axis: Bold As Love. The set closes with the instrumental “Crying Blue Rain” which leaves the proceedings on a tentative, softly hopeful note. And that seems just about right, aesthetically and historically. As we know, Hendrix would continue to work with Billy Cox (and Buddy Miles, captured for posterity on the seminal Band of Gypsys set), and he would revisit some of this material to great effect in the final months of his life. Valleys of Nepune, then, is not the Holy Grail, and it doesn’t need to be. That already exists anyway, and it is celebrated in spectacular fashion with the deluxe CD/DVD reissues of the four proper alums that preceded and followed these ’69 sessions.