The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Electric Ladyland — Deluxe Edition-50th Anniversary Box Set
Music: 5 out of 5 stars
Reissue packaging: 4 out of 5 stars
Even diehard Hendrix fans have probably lost track of how often the guitarist’s 76-minute opus Electric Ladyland has been reissued. It was the first and only of his three albums to hit the top of the Billboard charts after its October 1968 release and remains not only his best-selling work, but his most influential and critically acclaimed one.
Books have been written about the disc, but suffice it to say that Hendrix not only freed himself from the tightly constructed song structures of his first two sets, but also included more of the myriad influences that ran through his music. It was also the first time he had complete creative control — at least musically — over the final product. From deep-blues jamming (the quarter hour “Voodoo Chile” never lags) to stoned out psychedelic space-rock (13 mind-expanding minutes of “1983 … [A Merman I Should Turn to Be]”), jazzy improvisation (“Rainy Day, Dream Away”), politically edged rockers (“House Burning Down”), pop-crunchers that could have been on his earlier discs (“Gypsy Eyes,” “Crosstown Traffic”), and even a few he didn’t write (Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”), bassist Noel Redding’s somewhat incongruous bit of UK glam, “Little Miss Strange”), this was Hendrix’s most expansive and personal statement. It was also the last studio album he’d live to see released.
Anyone even slightly interested in Jimi Hendrix surely already owns a copy, so record company suits had to figure a way to sell it again as Electric Ladyland celebrates its 50th anniversary. To that end we get a three CD/one Blu-ray issue that aims to be the last word on this iconic album. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s a mixed bag, but one with plenty of reasons for the dedicated who have already purchased this music (i.e., everyone), to part with another $45.
The most enticing feature for the hardcore fan is an Early Takes disc of (mostly) unheard, and previously unreleased, demos and studio outtakes. These raw recordings are fascinating as Hendrix works through the material in its most primitive form. The 20 tracks, some just brief drafts under two minutes, include two finished songs that never made it to the final product (“Angel” and “My Friend,” both released posthumously), a few instrumental passages like “Cherokee Mist,” plus stripped down versions of “Voodoo Chile” (in a 10-minute, solo intimate piece nearly worth the price of the box), “Gypsy Eyes,” and a 10-minute instrumental run through of “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be),” with only drummer Mitch Mitchell accompanying him. Depending upon your fandom, these are either integral to your understanding of Hendrix’s thought process or just interesting sketches.
The previously unreleased show from the Hollywood Bowl, September 14, 1968, is more problematic. The thin, mono audio falls between cassette quality and worse (Mitch Mitchell’s drums often sound like they are recorded by a tin can on a string, Hendrix’s vocals are occasionally distorted to the point of ear-wincing annoyance), the Experience only plays one track from Electric Ladyland (released about two weeks afterwards), and the barely hour-long performance is substandard for Hendrix, especially in comparison with far superior concerts out there. Only the faithful will be able to sit through the whole thing. If this is the best Hendrix live the compilers have left, we are truly getting to the bottom of the barrel.
The 90-minute DVD documentary on the making of Electric Ladyland has been around in various forms since 2008, which means most Hendrix-lovers have seen it, although it’s now lengthened with additional material. The video takes us on a detailed and comprehensive exploration of almost every track by longtime Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer, who was there as the recording went down. His stories are enlightening, interviews with those who played on the sessions are absorbing, and this is a prime example of how to construct an effective “making of” documentary. After it’s over, you’ll better understand the social, personal and artistic forces that combined to create this classic.
Finally, the album gets a lavish, very cool 5.1 surround sound remix by Kramer. Whatever you feel about these things, the audio engineer says Hendrix visualized these songs in a more three-dimensional way which makes this overdue sonic expansion well worth hearing. Add a 48-page book with rare photos of the recording process (many apparently never before seen), Hendrix’s handwritten lyrics along with a revised cover photo (by Linda Eastman which he apparently had requested be used on the initial release), for the finishing touches on a 50th anniversary package for vital music that no one would dispute deserves the deluxe treatment.