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Jimi Hendrix – Valleys of Neptune

on March 09, 2010, 12:01am
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It’s with a certain remnant of adolescent giddiness that I review Valleys of Neptune, the latest collection of previously unreleased Jimi Hendrix recordings. As a teenager in the late ‘90s, I was on a first-name basis with Jimi. His iconic visage was plastered across my bedroom walls and screen printed onto my t-shirts. I actually tried playing a Stratocaster with my teeth before I ever used my fingers. But one thing I never got to experience was going into a record store on a release day and walking out with something brand-new from Hendrix—recordings and sounds that I had an equal ear in discovering, as opposed to coming across them decades after the rest of the world. For millions of younger Hendrix fans like me, Valleys of Neptune (and other Hendrix projects slated for future release) isn’t just another in a long line of posthumous Hendrix albums. It’s the nearest we can ever get to what it must have felt like when records like Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland changed the landscape of rock and roll forever in the late ‘60s.

Valleys of Neptune, the first new Hendrix studio album released in more than a decade, assembles 12 previously unreleased recordings, which include long-sought-after studio originals, reworked arrangements of Hendrix classics, and studio versions of covers Hendrix often played in concert. The bulk of these tracks were recorded in early 1969, as The Jimi Hendrix Experience worked on what was to be the follow-up to Electric Ladyland. This record captures the final studio output of the original Experience lineup and, with Billy Cox playing bass on three tracks, hints at what Hendrix would soon be moving on to with the Band of Gypsys.

Extracts of lead single “Valleys of Neptune” have surfaced in the past, which made obtaining a complete version of the song a major priority for die-hard Hendrix fans. A single listen will make it clear that this song was well worth the wait. From the opening riff and first lines of “Lord I feel the ocean swaying me/Washing away all my pain,” everything about “Valleys of Neptune” sounds like an immediate revelation. The other studio rarity that really resonates here is the bluesy “Hear My Train A Comin’”.  Most listeners will already be familiar with the 12-string acoustic version of this song, but being plugged in and backed here by a full band allows Hendrix the amplitude to reach additional emotional levels both vocally and on guitar.

However, the title track and “Hear My Train A Comin’” are by far the most realized and polished of the less familiar songs on Valleys of Neptune.  Other tracks like “Lover Man”, “Ships Passing through the Night”, “Lullaby for the Summer”, and “Crying Blue Rain” are little more than extended jams still waiting to be turned into songs. But at the same time, you would have to be dead not to be floored by the variety and innovation of Hendrix’s guitar mastery. These recordings may only be rough sketches of would be songs, but some of the most compelling material on Valleys of Neptune comes in these least likely of moments—when it seems that Hendrix is searching for something that he’s not ready to find quite yet.

Listeners will undoubtedly appreciate this album’s alternate take on three of Hendrix’s most indelible songs. “Stone Free”, which opens the record, grooves harder than the original and features distinct and trippy backing vocals that give this classic barnburner a new vibe. The arrangements of “Fire” and “Red House” have been expanded upon to give the feel of a stage performance. “Red House”, in particular, benefits from this treatment, as Hendrix has the time and space to wander, explore, and fully solo on guitar between succinct vocal parts.

The two cover songs on Valleys of Neptune also rank as highlights. Hendrix takes blues legend Elmore James’ straightforward “Bleeding Heart” and transforms it into his own inimitable style of funk rock that rollicks and soars. In 1969, Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” was a concert staple of the Experience, and Hendrix maneuvers through this classic with the meticulousness of a surgeon, his play ranging from bold and brash to restrained and intricate.

Valleys of Neptune is in no way a proper studio album. It’s largely a collection of riffs, solos, and songs in their infancy, destined to be fleshed out, transformed, or even scrapped all together. It’s a glimpse of Hendrix at work, trying to figure out what comes next. More than anything, Valleys of Neptune gives fans a chance to listen and wonder about what could have been.

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