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Published: Wednesday, 3/10/2010

New posthumous album recalls Jimi Hendrix's brilliance


There's a pesky ghost in a ruffled rainbow shirt and he just won't leave us alone.

His name is Jimi Hendrix and since his death nearly 40 years ago, he's gone from rock paragon to boomer nostalgia mascot to video game avatar - and he's sounded pretty great the entire time.

And while the iconic guitarist's tie-dyed influence on American music has refused to fade, yesterday marked a new wave of Hendrixophilia: the release of "Valleys of Neptune," a splendid collection of recordings, most from his final days with the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

It's a warning shot. "Valleys" is being released alongside other remastered original Hendrix albums. Reports say that the late guitarist's estate is preparing a forthcoming anthology too. Meantime, blogs continue to churn with rumors of a Rock Band video game that will give players the opportunity to channel their idol - a notion that feels well suited to Hendrix's pioneering sense of techno-spiritualism.

Sound familiar? The entire campaign echoes the neo-Beatlemania of 2009: Repackage a legendary artist by offering products to different generations at various price points and hope the dollars roll in.

"Valleys of Neptune" kicks things off with 12 unreleased Hendrix recordings, most from 1969. And yes, in the age of file-sharing, "unreleased" is a relative term, but these versions should sound familiar only to the savviest of bootleg aficionados.

But with this new release comes plenty of old-fashioned mythologizing. On the album cover, our hero's portrait is superimposed over a billowing cloud of stardust as if to suggest that this isn't merely an album, but a transmission from some cosmic afterlife.

That's a tough myth to debunk. The disc's big revelation is its title track, with guitar chords skipping and skidding across the beat, Hendrix bellowing about his alien origins, "Mercury liquid and emeralds shining, showing me where I came from."

Some of Hendrix's best work evoked a limitless galaxy, a theme that's propelled some of America's most adventurous black musicians - from Sun Ra to Funkadelic to OutKast. But the man also knew when to stay earthbound, and does just that with another unreleased tune, "Ships Passing Through the Night." It's a rolling, robust blues, his guitar swathed in an underwater warble that never blurs his human touch.

"Hear My Train a Comin' " unloads a similar bag of thrills, the guitarist wailing away while his rhythm section lurches along behind him. And that's really the draw of these recordings in 2010. They sound like three dudes playing together in a room.

Except when they aren't. A few of these takes ("Mr. Bad Luck," "Lover Man," "Crying Blue Rain") were touched up by original Experience members Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell in 1987. It isn't a travesty, considering that Hendrix never shied from studio trickery. Having pushed so many envelopes in the realm of technology and timbre, one gets the sense that he would have loved Auto-Tune if he were still making music today.

Here's some more potential heresy: Hendrix's brisk, instrumental read of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" bests the original, with guitars sand-blasting away at the version forever calcified in our mind. Hendrix almost bests himself, too, with a sprawling eight-minute version of "Red House."

Why does this stuff still sound so good? Hendrix can no longer shock us with kaleidoscopic garb or onstage bravado, but his music still manages to affect our expectations with a subtlety that feels like magic. He remains strangely virtuosic, his playing full of sweet micro-imperfections. His fingers tease the tempo. He pulls notes back, rushes others forward, coaxing now-familiar noises from his Stratocaster as if it were a series of miraculous accidents.

You can hear the music happening - a distinct, 21st-century pleasure that feels both quaint and mysterious.

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