Monday, October 25, 2010

Jimi Hendrix: Valleys Of Neptune (2010) and associated singles

After a lifetime of casually grooving to his spacey takes on space and time, the Tanuki started seriously collecting Jimi Hendrix sometime around 1994. For those of you keeping score and nursing grudges, this would have been just before the Hendrix family gained legal control over Jimi's recordings. My appetite had been whetted by the last few releases of the old regime (Blues, Woodstock, and Voodoo Soup), but I had also read about the various crimes against art that the old regime had perpetrated on Jimi's music, and so I was happy to learn that somebody else was taking over and planning to do things right. And I was happy to be getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, before I'd invested much money in a Jimi collection.

Doing things right, in my book, meant, above all, putting Jimi's catalog in order. For twenty-five years his unreleased studio recordings had been overdubbed, sliced'n'diced, recycled and repackaged, and just generally exploitated. And his live work had been sneaking out on various almost-barely-legit labels, with lousy sound and sloppy dating, and garish covers by addled French painters. It was time for somebody to release things in an organized fashion, so that the newcomer (me! me! me!) could start to make sense of it all.

Things started out very auspiciously. The Hendrix family's re-releases of the core studio albums, the Experience's only three finished works, were exemplary. I've read some complaints, but I always thought the sound was fine, the packaging was attractive and authentic, the liner notes informative and clear (except for a pompous and useless "I was there" essay by Derek Taylor in Electric Ladyland), and the music basically complete. Are You Experienced?, for example, was brought together with all the associated non-elpee single sides, and all the tracks that were released on either the UK or US versions of the album but not both. Unbelievably, this was the first time this had been done. (For some reason they didn't do this with Axis: Bold As Love: chronologically that's where "Burning Of The Midnight Lamp" belongs, but of course that song was placed on the third album; its b-side, however, could have been added to one or the other, but was held back for a later release.)

What they did next was even more auspicious. Each previous regime had presented what purported to be the last album, the one Jimi was working on, and had supposedly almost completed, when he died. First it was The Cry Of Love, then it was Voodoo Soup. It was no surprise that the Family made their own stab at it. What was nice was that First Rays Of The New Rising Sun turned out to be definitive. The liner notes marshalled convincing evidence that it represented as nearly as possible Jimi's final ideas on the album, and the music contained within was magnificently presented, and for the most part effectively sequenced.

With the canon re-established they then set about organizing the rest of the stuff, all the myriad studio experiments and all the live stuff. And I loved how they set about this. With South Saturn Delta they gave us the bulk of the previously-released, universally-loved studio tracks that hadn't made it onto First Rays, plus some stuff nobody had heard before. Systematic, is how it felt. It didn't have everything on it, but it was a great start.

Their handling of the live work was even more satisfying. They wisely, in my opinion, started out by issuing more-complete, and thus definitive, versions of the key live albums that previous regimes and insurgencies had released. Thus a complete (for any reasonable intent and purpose) Woodstock, and a nice two-disc set of Fillmore East shows to supplement the lovingly-reissued Band Of Gypsys.

The first misstep, in my opinion, was the 2000 box set: for what they were charging, I was disappointed at how short the four discs were (they could have fit fifteen minutes or so more on each disc). More seriously, it felt like a hodgepodge: some genuinely interesting studio things (but still not all of the previously-released, now-unavailable stuff), some relatively superfluous alternate takes, some great live stuff (but nothing close to a complete show)... Rather than picking one thing to do and doing it well, it did several things rather half-heartedly.

And things only went downhill from there. What had been a gratifyingly steady stream of major live releases petered out - in the 2000s the Family managed to give us a definitive Isle of Wight, but the other things we got were a long-overdue (but still unexciting, because it was the one thing the previous regime had gotten completely right) Monterey Pop and a curiously short and incomplete Berkeley set. And there were no other major-market studio releases after the box.

Instead the Family launched an internet-order only "official bootleg" series, Dagger Records. This was a welcome development, although I don't think in the end it was as well done as it could have been. The studio collections were interesting, and picked up a few more bits and pieces of the previously-released, now-unavailable oeuvre (but still not all). The live stuff was sometimes quite nice, but concentrated too much on obscure and incomplete and skeevy-sounding tapes for my taste. Like, why release Fehmarn when you still haven't done anything with the phenomenal Winterland '68 tapes?

And that's where things stood until this year. A fantastic late-'90s start had turned into a long, slow, frustrating decade in the '00s (as was true of so many things). ...For the record, I don't think it was entirely the Family's fault. I gather that the company was all but paralyzed by lawsuits, first against a series of European outfits who were managing to get semi-legitimate but shamelessly misleading discs into the shops for several years beginning in the early '00s, and then by the lawsuits following Jimi's dad's death.

Sony stepped in this year, leasing the rights to manage Jimi's catalogue for the next ten years. They launched the new new regime with a slew of reissues and archival releases this year. Valleys Of Neptune was the summer's big news, although the marquee event seems to be the West Coast Seattle Boy box due next month.

It should have been good news to Hendrix fans that the lawsuits were done and a major, determined record label was stepping in to get things going again. Truth be told, though, I was bummed. This is because, as a longtime Dylan fan, I've seen how Sony likes to handle rich catalogs like this: with the water-torture method. Dribs and drabs now and then, and nothing like a comprehensive, systematic, respectful (both of the artist and the fans) treatment.

And that's what we have here. Valleys Of Neptune is the most random of all the latter-day Hendrix releases. It's self-consciously referencing South Saturn Delta (which everybody loved), but whereas that was a judicious cross-section of Jimi's career, including tracks from his earliest sessions and his latest, both new things and things that had been previously released but deleted, all in the service of a clear vision of how our understanding of Jimi's work could be expanded, this is a shapeless mess. All tracks but one come from sessions in February and April of 1969, just after Electric Ladyland and just before the Experience broke up. This was a very fertile period, and tracks from these sessions have graced several previous releases; this could, therefore, have been a definitive last look at the last phase of the original Experience. So why then do they toss in "Mr. Bad Luck" from 1967? What rhyme or reason is there in that? Either focus or cast a wide net, people.

What else could this release have been? It includes a number of compositions that, although they're basically embryonic versions of familiar tunes, are nonetheless distinct enough that they stand alone nicely. The title tune, for instance, and "Crying Blue Rain," "Lullaby For The Summer," and "Ships Passing Through The Night." These could have been the nucleus of a great album full of "new" Hendrix tunes - but instead they fill out the disc with alternate recordings of some of the most familiar Hendrix tunes in the catalog. Yet another "Red House"? Another "Lover Man"? Really?

The thing is, there are still more than enough things out there in the category of previously-released but now-unavailable tracks to have filled out such a release. Viz. "Peace In Mississippi," a great aggro instrumental that was on Voodoo Soup and nothing since. In fact they were aware enough of that track's value that they put it on the b-side of a "Valleys Of Neptune" single released only through Walmart's website. Why consign it to obscurity?

Because that's what Sony does. Someday they'll resurrect it for a major release, but until then why not squeeze a few more bucks out of the faithful? Why give them a thoughtfully-compiled, thorough compilation when they'll buy a half-assed one now, and maybe another one later?

I can see they're starting it again for the fall. Damn me, I'll probably buy the box when it comes out. And already I'm disappointed because the single they've released to promote it, "Love Or Confusion," includes a fantastic, really revelatory b-side called "12 Bar With Horns." It won't be on the box.

What do I care? I bought both singles: I have what I need. And anything else I decide I need is out there, if I care to look for it.

But I do care. A good reissue is a thing of beauty. Blue Wild Angel, South Saturn Delta, BBC Sessions: these opened my eyes and thrilled my ears, not just because they contained great music but because they were thorough enough and coherent enough to make a convincing case for that music. I've seldom had that happen with a Sony re-release: they always leave me feeling like I know and understand less, because I know what they've left off. And why they've left it off.

(Oh yeah. The music on Valleys Of Neptune. Well, it's surprisingly great. Even some of the more familiar cuts. There's nothing to my ears that distinguishes this version of "Hear My Train A-Comin'" from the average live version, nothing special, but it's still a magnificent example of the mature Experience in all its raging glory. It's all good. It's just badly contextualized.)

(Oh, yeah again. Most of what I know about Hendrix's catalog comes from this inestimably awesome website: The Jimi Hendrix Record Guide. Don't let the old-school graphics put you off. This guy knows his Jimi.)

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