Saturday, March 13, 2010

A welcome ghost from the past - Jimi Hendrix 'Valleys of Neptune'

A new Jimi Hendrix recording, forty years after his death, is not something that anyone can easily ignore, especially when it boasts 12 never-before-released tracks, and so it was understandably pretty difficult for me to walk past the displays of Valleys of Neptune in the local CD shop today without grabbing a copy.

Valleys of Neptune really is a new album, and its 12 tracks really are previously unreleased. They’re all studio recordings and all, with the exception of ‘Mr Bad Luck’ and ‘Crying Blue Rain’, which had their bass and drums recorded and added some twenty years later, are original recordings that have just never made it onto the commercial market until now.

There are not really a lot of surprises here but, with Hendrix, you don’t need any because what he does is just so good, and there’s just so little of it available, that even more of the same is like gold, even if it does take forty years for it to arrive.

Pretty well everyone in the world knows Hendrix a lot better than I do and so anything I say is going to be at the risk of sounding hackneyed and superfluous and yet, even so, the impression that his music has on someone discovering it for the first time is like nothing else – and so, in that sense, this album is going to be almost as big a treat for others as it was for me.

The album has some fantastic tracks on it, full of those long, intense interludes where Hendrix withdraws into his guitar and into music where the very guts of who he is are laid bare, with all their blood and blisters, far all the world to see and to share. You just can’t listen to this music without a bit of you bleeding and blistering with him.

The title track is a stunner – its easy, laid-back flow embellished with that trademark guitar work that trips and skips along, blithe despite its heaviness, through the beat of the music.

And there’s ‘Bleeding Heart’, where the guitar really does beat and bleed, as if it was made of flesh; or ‘Hear My Train a Comin’’, with that blazing blues rock that Hendrix did so well, the guitar screeching and wailing at the upper ends of its range, Hendrix playing the notes as if they are coming from somewhere inside him, which in some ways is exactly where the guitar always was for him. How else could he find those impossibly difficult notes and still make them sound so innate, so unaffected? It is, incidentally, a great track to play to anyone who thinks that Hendrix couldn’t sing.

There are the sensational syncopated rhythms of the cover of Cream’s ‘Sunshine of your Love’, first in the guitar, which in time gives way to some ostinato percussion and then returns to do its devilish dance of seduction, pouring out all its lurid, gritty sexiness.

‘Red House’ begins gently, tenderly almost, falling into a strolling, sauntering beat where the guitar almost whistles as it goes along. But it whistles through cut, charred lips, eventually building up its own momentum, its own voice, telling its own story, tragic and impassioned, as if the music has stopped strolling along and is now huddled in a corner somewhere, crying and anguished.

It’s all vintage Hendrix – whether it’s the stream of consciousness guitar line in ‘Lover Man’, the sturdier rock beat in ‘Ships Passing Through the Night’, or just that jaw-dropping way he turns a screech into a wail when he takes the note down a notch, like in ‘Fire’ – and every bit of it is worth the wait.

Valleys of Neptune might be everything you’d expect it to be – and that’s exactly why it’s so, so good.

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