Jimi Hendrix Stands Up Next To A Mountain, Chops It Down With His Guitar

Mar 12, 2003 (Updated Mar 29, 2003)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Beautiful and intricate guitar passages, Jimi's lyrical growth


The Bottom Line: A rock masterpiece of monumental proportions. Essential Hendrix - but then again, all Hendrix is essential

What can I say about Jimi Hendrix that I, or someone else, hasn’t already said. In his short time on our planet, Hendrix did more to redefine the electric guitar than any other artist in the history of rock and roll. Not only younger musicians, but also some of Jimi’s most well respected peers had to change their approach once the young man came along. He had a vision of piece and beauty, and was responsible for some of the most heartfelt songs of an entire generation. Say what you will, but no song will ever surpass the pure melancholic sadness of Little Wing or Castles Made Of Sand. He was a talented lyricist, an enigmatic figure who wrote songs with a tremendous emotional depth. And perhaps most importantly of all, Hendrix was the first man to make rock and roll a level playing field for all races. Others before him came close, but even the likes of Chuck Berry didn’t have the same effect on audiences as Jimi, the so-called Wild Man of Borneo.

Through only three studio albums and a live record released to fill contract requirements, Hendrix built his celebrity so high that even he as a human could never approach it. The bright clothes, the tight, flared jeans, the wild afro and that smug look of satisfaction - Jimi Hendrix was a character of cartoon superhero proportions, responsible for challenging the status quo more so than any other artist of the late 1960s. Hendrix coaxed absolutely remarkable sounds from his weapon of choice, a Fender Stratocaster that he strung backwards and played upside down. His pervasive wit was evidence of Hendrix’s genius, a guitar hero who encompassed everything right about the world, and rock music in particular. When his life came to a tragic end in 1970, Hendrix took the final step, cementing his status as a God of rock and roll. It’s only unfortunate that it takes death for a man to achieve the notoriety he deserves. Or in some cases, notoriety that they don’t deserve (*coughJimMorrisoncough*).

But I digress. Electric Ladyland is the third outing from the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and the third within two years. With each album, Hendrix broke new ground in the still young existence of rock music. Are You Experienced? was filled with a large number of ferocious, overdriven guitar leads, as well as a penchant for straight blues performances. Axis: Bold As Love explored music more dynamically, often utilizing soft and textured guitar parts that were intended to compliment Jimi’s vocal readings. Axis was also a diverse album musically speaking, taking on a broad range of styles including straight R&B, heavy metal, jazz and experimental music, in addition to his already patented fiery brand of straight-ahead rock and roll. More money meant more access to state of the art equipment, and Jimi took that to his advantage on Axis, utilizing a broad range of analogue effects such as phasing and flanging - two technically challenging sounds to create at the time that have since become a standard on the pedal boards of many notable musicians. The vocals and guitars swirl all over the mix, in and out one ear, and the interplay between musicians is absolutely remarkable.

Electric Ladyland was another long step forward for Hendrix, the next logical stage in his musical growth. While still relying somewhat on his driving, inventive guitar licks, he still continued to broaden his horizons musically, and as a result, Electric Ladyland is filled with beautifully gripping textures. While on Axis, much of the focus on guitar handiwork was pushed to the background, Electric Ladyland takes the same idea further. It’s obvious that Jimi had already reached far beyond the possibilities of a trio in the studio, and so there are far more guest musicians present. There are horn sections and a number of guest appearances by keyboardists. Hendrix even breaks out the harpsichord and the kazoo for two different numbers. Jimi’s guitar work is still as revolutionary and imaginative as ever, but it’s been toned, for the most part, even further into the background than on Axis: Bold As Love.

The songs themselves also represent a reasonable step forward. Electric Ladyland is home to some of Jimi’s most thoughtful and well-written compositions, wrapped in metaphor and creative storytelling dialogue. There’s nothing as immediately striking as, say, Little Wing, but several of these numbers come close with their serene, almost sombre sound at moments. The songs also draw on Jimi’s influences, even more so than Axis. While Axis went from style to style on each track, Electric Ladyland finds Jimi blending a number of different styles all on a single track. The textured instrumentation belies a range of musical approaches ranging from classic blues to jazz to R&B and encompasses all of Jimi’s influence. A subtle but noticeable resemblance to the Beatles can he heard at a number of points, and Jimi’s voice in and of itself is an indication of his respect for Bob Dylan. And perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle was longer tracks with more time to build and grow into something impressive. Satisfied with his stardom thus far, Jimi was no longer concerned with pumping out the largely two to four minute tracks that would have been necessary for radio at the time. Hendrix seemed confident that the album would be driven not by a single but by a set of sixteen excellent tracks. Which, really, it was - although Ladyland was also the album that spawned one top twenty hit and another track that reached number 52 on the Billboard singles chart. However, Electric Ladyland itself was Jimi’s only number one album in the United States. Not bad for a largely experimental album that drew from all sorts of unlikely sources. From Dylan to Muddy Waters, Jimi was able to incorporate something about every musician he loved into this album, and the result is a towering double record that rivals the best albums in rock’s history.

Speaking of Dylan, Electric Ladyland also returns to Jimi’s practice of covering songs. Unlike some artists though, Hendrix didn’t just perform standard reading of songs. Instead, he tore them apart and completely reinvented them as his own child. All Along The Watchtower, by then a Dylan classic, became, perhaps, Jimi’s single greatest moment in his chapter of rock history. Hendrix, in fact, did so much with the track that Dylan himself began performing it like Jimi had when live in concert. Come On (Let The Good Times Roll) is a classic Earl King number that finds Jimi paying tribute while also adding his own diverse flavour to the track.

The large number of guest artists and contributors, as well as cover songs, could have caused this album to be cluttered and disorganized. But through the wild genius of Hendrix, it never does. The songs flow beautifully into one another, and a fifteen minute jam seems to stand up just as well as a four-minute straight rock offering. At 75 minutes, Electric Ladyland is nearly twice as long as Jimi’s last album, but it honestly feels just as short as Axis: Bold As Love. Perhaps it’s the strength of the songs or the absolutely perfect arrangements, but sitting through the seventy-five minutes of Electric Ladyland never seems like you’ve just sat through a seventy-five minute album. There’s no dragging, and you’re left craving more no matter how many times you’ve already listened to it. That, I believe, is the true testament of a great album. When time stands still while you’re listening to it, you know it’s special.

Is Electric Ladyland a flawless record then? Well, no, but on the surface it would appear so. I think the only problem really lies in Jimi’s perfectionism. The man was willing to go through in excess of a dozen takes in an attempt to hit just the right nerve - which could perhaps raise an argument that maybe a rawer, more improvised approach would have worked just as well or even better. There was also a strained relationship between Hendrix, bassist Noel Redding, and drummer Mitch Mitchell at the time of recording, and there are a few seemingly tense moments in the music that sound almost like a game of chess between the three musicians. It rarely happens, and when it does, it’s hardly noticeable, but it is there. It’s also likely the reason that Redding got his own track on the record like he did on Axis: Bold As Love. While it doesn’t seem to affect the album itself in a significant way, the departure of producer Chas Chandler did create a problem (at least for recording; it never really comes out in the album)

Chandler was the man who spent years honing Jimi’s talent from that of a raw but talented wannabe star to the most significant counterculture icon of that decade. It was Chandler who convinced Jimi to keep the tracks shorter for the sake of radio, and it was Chandler who often kept Jimi from endlessly re-recording tracks in an attempt to get the perfect one. It’s fairly easy to pick out which songs were recorded before Chandler grew frustrated with Jimi’s new direction and departed, as they are generally the shorter and more simplistic (comparatively speaking of course, as Hendrix never created a simplistic song) numbers. With Chandler gone, Hendrix was given free reign and, while I like some of the longer and more experimental or avant-garde jams, they could perhaps confuse a person who knew Jimi only from the generally short, straightforward songs on his first two outings. Essentially, Chandler was Jimi’s dam, letting him know when enough was enough. Without that dam, the songs lost some of their focus. Only the smallest amount, and there is never a real drop-off in quality, but both Jimi’s prior albums were filled with great singles. Electric Ladyland wasn’t concerned with singles, though, and each of those songs contribute to an overall mood that makes Ladyland such a beautiful and ethereal album.

Electric Ladyland begins with a very trippy and experimental number not unlike EXP on Axis: Bold As Love before gently rolling into the soft melody of Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland), with Hendrix singing in an almost falsetto tone of a swirling but restrained guitar piece. Crosstown Traffic is a burst of pure energy with a hard and steady rhythm powering Jimi’s strumming chords. Jimi sings in a fast, rap-like delivery (perhaps one of the genre’s origins?), wrapping the story of a troubled relationship into a metaphorical traffic jam. The track features a kazoo, which, while sounding silly, nicely fills out the rotating psychedelic vibe of the track.

Voodoo Chile is a fifteen minute long studio blues jam that Jimi liked so much that he put to tape. Jimi utilizes a call-and-response style between his vocals and guitar, singing a line and then playing a soulful little fill. Organ player Steve Winwood, at the time a member of Traffic, lends his talent on the track, playing a rambling accompaniment beside Jimi’s soaring guitar work. Little Miss Strange is Noel Redding’s contribution the album, another pseudo-psychedelic Beatles-esque number with Jimi’s solo serving to steal much of the spotlight from Redding. Long Hot Summer Night has a very R&B, honky-tonk feel while Come On (Let The Good Times Roll) is an excellent interpretation of a classic blues number. Hendrix plays this piece at a fast pace and with a tremendous amount of vibrant energy, throwing in a few solos for the sake adding his stamp to the song.

Gypsy Eyes is powered by a hard measured beat with fast jolts of Jimi’s guitar serving to create a vaguely psychedelic atmosphere. The guitars are overdubbed, with the lead panned right and the texture to the left. Burning Of The Midnight Lamp highlights Jimi’s use of a heavily out-of-phase, swirling harpsichord in a track that is definitely a departure musically, but still sounds like classic Hendrix. The vocals have a distant, underwater vibe that helps give the entire song a wildly experimental vibe. Rainy Day, Dream Away is Hendrix in a jazzy mood, featuring a saxophone that plays off Jimi’s riffs.

There is no doubt that the centrepiece of Electric Ladyland is the fourteen minute, wildly experimental opus entitled 1983... (A Merman I Should Turn To Be). The song finds Jimi at his beautiful lyrically, a sad but absolutely gorgeous number that deals with the future and how war is ruining our planet. The track is definitely rooted in Jimi’s science fiction interests, and the music finds Jimi at the peak of his career. His guitar parts are gentle and soothing, but still unique and absolutely gigantic. A flute also plays dreamily as the whole song shimmers and moves back and forth from speaker to speaker in a grand sort of way. As the lyrics fade away, they are replaced by a sombre piece that continues to move gently from speaker to speaker, playing off of other instruments as they enter and fade from the mix. The track eventually begins to speed up, with Jimi’s dreamlike vocals returning at the eleven minute mark. The last minutes of the song grow to a hectic pace, with Jimi’s guitars gradually increasing in volume until they’re overdriven and squeal wildly, cutting across the mix. Moon, Turn The Tides… Gently Gently Away is a continuation of 1983, with Jimi’s guitar and the other instruments softly simulating the ebb and flow of a tide, whooshing between speakers.

Still Raining, Still Dreaming is a heavier continuation of Rainy Day, Dream Away with Jimi drenching his guitar in wah and going all out while the galloping House Burning Down takes on racial issues in Jimi’s classic storytelling manner. All Along The Watchtower is Jimi’s reinvention of Bob Dylan’s original, a song that feeds on Jimi’s fluid guitars and a soft organ touch. As the track builds, so does the energy with the bridge solos increasing in energy after every verse.

Everyone has heard Electric Ladyland’s closer at one time or another. Voodoo Child (Slight Return) returns to the same basic idea as the fifteen-minute Voodoo Chile jam, but with an incredible amount of vigour and heavy metal intensity. Jimi’s guitars are drowned in with wah, with the pedal being depressed rhythmically. The rest of the band joins in, providing a steady machine gun beat for Jimi’s wild guitar histrionics. The guitars border on overdriving and the amps begin to feedback as Jimi reinvents the instrument in one single, five minute burst. Structurally, the song resembles the aforementioned Voodoo Chile, with the same call and response attack, but here Jimi’s fills and the solo at the 3:40 mark absolutely take the cake with the warbling passages surpassing anything that anyone has ever done with a guitar. The track is towering, and would become the basis for Isaac HayesShaft theme years later.

Electric Ladyland stands as a powerful statement by one of rock’s most powerful and emotive figures. Jimi Hendrix draws from an enormous pool of musical influences, but always sounds original. More importantly, it always sounds absolutely brilliant. Jimi’s lyrics are another step forward from the growth already shown on Axis: Bold As Love, and his guitar parts are inspired. Hendrix runs up and down the fretboard on Electric Ladyland, taking advantage of every possible note a guitar can make. He draws sounds from it that you wouldn’t think possible, but at the same time, he never overdoes it. When the song requires, he’s capable of holding back without losing the guitar’s power. Jimi’s guitar speaks volumes on Electric Ladyland, and it tells a story of one of the twentieth century’s most exceptional musical talents. The songs are tight and for all Jimi’s studio excess, he and his band never lose sight of the goal. Electric Ladyland is one of the greatest rock albums of all time, the genius and growth of rock’s cartoon superhero. Jimi Hendrix may have died only two years later, but Electric Ladyland is definitely a dazzling farewell. It’s strangely appropriate and comforting though, the final verse Hendrix utters on the album’s closer Voodoo Child:

If I don't meet you no more in this world/I'll meet you in the next one, and don't be late

Related Reviews:
Blue Wild Angel: Jimi Hendrix Live At The Isle Of Wight
Jimi Hendrix - Axis: Bold As Love

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