Album Reviews

Jimi Hendrix – People, Hell and Angels

on March 07, 2013, 12:03am
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When Jimi Hendrix died, he became a god. This is an undisputed fact. It’s all been said before, regurgitated by rock writers for decades: Hendrix revolutionized the art of guitar playing. He viewed the instrument as a sonic anomaly, his playing an ongoing experiment conducted during every jam session and live show. Scales, chords, progressions — all that stuff had already been discovered. Hendrix was fascinated by what hadn’t been done with a guitar– like playing it through wah-wah pedals and massive gain, or picking its strings with his teeth, or dousing it with lighter fluid and igniting it. His godliness is directly correlated to his larger-than-life fretwork.

So when he died, he ascended to the rock ‘n’ roll heavens, where his divine amplifier feedback can be heard for all of eternity. Us mortals were left with loose ends: demos, outtakes, unfinished recordings, archived live audio, and stray handwritten lyrics. They were scraps to some, $$$ to all the music industry execs who knew how to exploit the death of an icon.

The first three posthumous LPs — The Cry of Love, Rainbow Bridge, and War Heroes — were produced and compiled by Mitch Mitchell, Eddie Kramer, and John Jansen with the earnest intent of finishing what Hendrix couldn’t (most of these songs would be collected on 1997’s First Rays of the New Rising Sun in an attempt to recreate the album Hendrix was working on before he died). Admirable enough. But with the vaults open and labels placing bids on Hendrix’s unreleased material, the money grubbing ensued. The villain: record producer Alan Douglas. Starting with 1975’s Crash Landing, Douglas produced numerous albums by taking Hendrix’s leftovers and replacing the original rhythm tracks with overdubs by session musicians. After mastering, the recordings sounded more polished and professional, but less authentic. This pissed off a lot of Hendrix fans. Douglas compiled every posthumous studio album until the Hendrix estate (which operates under the name ‘Experience Hendrix L.L.C.’) gained ownership of the recordings in 1995.

Not that that’s seen a decrease in releases. Legacy Recordings and Experience Hendrix have already collaborated for some box sets and LPs, People, Hell and Angels being the latest. However, the presentation of the music differs. This partnership has taken an archivist approach to preserving and releasing posthumous material — the opposite of what Douglas did. No overdubs. You’re hearing Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums (the Band of Gypsys!). Stephen Stills shows up. The recordings sound raw– and real.

Opener “Earth Blues” is a tight rock-and-soul fusion and easily the catchiest tune on People, Hell and Angels. Hendrix sings his conversational jive-talk as Miles and Cox follow with a harmonized chorus reminiscent of vintage Motown. Originally featured on 1971’s Rainbow Bridge, the song is presented here in a looser form.  The same goes for “Somewhere”, which sees Stills on bass. The takes are obviously candid, as if somebody just hit the record button while Hendrix and his band jammed in the studio (which is probably what happened). And the guitar solos… they’re on every song, multiple minutes in length. It’s to be expected, but it gets tiresome with repeated plays. Better are the solos that sound written rather than improvised. “Sometimes” touts one of the former, a silky romance of a solo that segues into Hendrix all down n’ out: “Back at the saloon, tears mix with mildew in my dreams.” No surprise that the two aforementioned tracks were selected as the singles for People, Hell and Angels (and they’re bound to chart, courtesy of classic rock stations everywhere).

The rest of the album is a mixed bag of brilliance and indifference. Some songs we simply don’t need another version of in our music libraries. “Hear My Train A Comin’” and “Bleeding Heart” were presented in superior form on 1994’s Blues; “Izabella” sounds good here, but better on First Rays and Woodstock. Other songs are so rough that they were probably better off unreleased (the cloying solo in the middle of “Easy Blues” is arguably Hendrix’s worst; “Mojo Man” is a Ghetto Fighters track with guitar awkwardly overdubbed into it).

Then there’s “Crash Landing”, which is so good that it’s hard to believe it went unreleased for so long (Douglas’ version doesn’t count). Hendrix sings to then-girlfriend Devon Wilson, pleading that she kick her drug addiction: “And look at you, all lovey-dovey when you mess around with that needle / Well, I wonder, how would your loving be otherwise?” His lyrics are rarely this personal and transparent. This is the kind of stuff that makes a posthumous release worthwhile.

People, Hell and Angel isn’t perfect — or godly — but it does contain some canon tracks that every Hendrix fan should hear. And for a posthumous anthology, it’s surprisingly cohesive as a singular unit. These tracks share a consistent groove that’s never urgent or lazy, but just right. Perhaps it’s the organic, jam-session sound quality. Or the Miles-Cox rhythm section. Whatever the dynamic, the Douglas-produced albums didn’t have it. People, Hell and Angels does, and no matter how flawed it might be, you can’t dispute its authenticity.

Essential Tracks: “Earth Blues”, “Crash Landing”

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