Whenever a dead guy releases a “new” album, I think people have a moral duty to heap upon it every ounce of skepticism they can muster. Honestly, for me, posthumous releases are met with immediate scorn and derision and they have to work their way past that before I can enjoy them. Why? Because, even if a posthumous release contains “Never before heard” material, you may not be hearing the songs exactly how the artist wanted to present them. Maybe their surviving family and friends have a fair idea what the artist was going for, but you can’t be 100% sure. Now, only getting 85ish percent of an artist’s vision isn’t going to keep me from checking out a posthumous release, but it’s a strike against them. The biggest concern I have with the postmortem album is that, by purchasing an album after the artist is dead, I am basically tossing money into the yacht fund for unscrupulous family members, former bandmates, or both.
On the other hand, who doesn’t want more music from their favorite dead artist? I mean, I’ll be honest with you, if you release tapes of Joe Strummer singing folk songs in his living room, I’ll snap them up like they cure impotence. Which they probably will.
Which brings us, more or less, to the “new” Jimi Hendrix album, Valleys of Neptune, which has been meticulously packaged by his little sister Janie, with help from John McDermott (who wrote extensive liner notes) and Eddie Kramer. To her credit, Janie Hendrix has done an admirable job over the years removing hackneyed posthumous Jimi Hendrix albums from the marketplace. On the day Valleys of Neptune dropped, her Experience Hendrix company reissued the four studio albums Hendrix authorized during his brief life. So Valleys comes from a reasonably solid place of credibility and, while it contains songs you’ve heard before, they are versions that have never been released and are, mostly, taken from sessions that Hendrix was using to retool and improve some of his older songs (although the version of “Red House” that appears on Valleys of Neptune is, to my ears, vastly inferior to the version that appears on Are You Experienced?).
In fact, Valleys of Neptune does a really excellent job of shining light on Jimi Hendrix as a creative studio musician. Towards the end of his life, Hendrix booked studio time in many of the cities in which he was playing and used that time both to develop new songs and tweak old ones more to his liking. This, of course, means there may be reels and reels of stuff yet to come from Experience Hendrix and that, of course, may have diminishing returns.
But the key question with any album by any artist, living or dead, is “Is it a compelling listen?” Well, if you never liked Jimi Hendrix before, Valleys of Neptune won’t win you over. And if you did like Jimi Hendrix before, like I did, Valleys of Neptune will prove a fairly enjoyable listen (although I get antsy by the time “Red House” rolls around) and, if nothing else, it will make you want to hit John Mayer in the face with a shovel (as if any thinking person needs another reason to want to hit John Mayer in the face with a shovel). Why? Because Valleys of Neptune will remind you just how amazing a guitar player Jimi Hendrix was – it even casts a shadow on my enjoyment of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s music (only a little) because it illustrates the large debt Vaughan owed to Hendrix. And if you connect the dots, you see that Mayer is a watered down imitator of Stevie Ray, who was something of a Hendrix impersonator (though a fairly superb one. And, before SRV fans send the hate mail, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the debt that both Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan owe to slide guitarist Elmore James). This is not to cast derision on Stevie Ray Vaughan, but to cast it on John Mayer. In light of Jimi Hendrix’s recorded output, one should see Mayer on the level of a bad Elvis impersonator – he is to music what Kirsten Dunst is to acting (and if you think Kirsten Dunst is a great actress, I want whatever drugs you’re taking).
Among the Hendrix songs I’ve never heard before, my two favorites on Valleys of Neptune are the title track and the scorching “Hear My Train A-Comin'”, which is a stunning, visceral blues number on a par with the version of “Red House” that doesn’t appear on this album.
I have, really, only two complaints about Valleys of Neptune, neither one of which could be addressed by Janie Hendrix, unless she has a time machine that I don’t know about. The first is, as I believe I’ve mentioned, the inferior version of “Red House” and the second is that Hendrix recorded Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” as an instrumental track. It is evident that Jimi Hendrix was probably the best guitar player ever (your Satrianis and Vais and whatnot are not even in the same league, shredders. Henrdrix had soul. “Here My Train A-Comin'” blows every Joe Satriani track ever straight out of the water. Period.), but I have long lobbied to have him remembered as a really great singer. Listen to “Little Wing,” which is – again, obviously – a stellar guitar track, but his vocal performance on that song is really beautiful. No one is going to say that Hendrix doesn’t hit “Sunshine of Your Love” out of the park musically, but I would have loved to hear a recording of him singing the song as well.
In the end, you may be helping Janie Hendrix send her kids to college by purchasing Valleys of Neptune, but it remains a posthumous release that actually manages a lot of dignity and lacks any whiff of cynical exploitation. The woman seems genuinely concerned about preserving her brother’s legacy as a musician, and I’m saying that as a guy who derided the existence of this album from the first moment I heard about it.