Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Better as a Single: "Electric Ladyland" by the Jimi Hendrix Experience

Jimi Hendrix's music legacy is confusing as hell. Part of the problem is that he released only three studio albums during his life but appears to have recorded an almost unlimited wealth of material, kept in vaults and gradually released after his death in an endless flow of 'posthumous albums', ranging in quality from quite good to absolutely horrid. His barrel appears to have no bottom whatsoever, but by now only a small portion of 'what's out there' is material Hendrix actually intended to have 'out there'. Hendrix's own role in the shaping of his legacy has long become a mere footnote. Which is a tragedy - the glut of material that's out there should be sifted through, but only after consuming the three studio albums he actually sanctioned release of.

This issue is part-and-parcel of the greater confusion regarding Jimi Hendrix. On the one hand, there's the acid-head hippie child, live on stage playing his guitar with his teeth or else setting it on fire, smack-dab in the middle of endless jamming, an orgiastic celebration of instrumental virtuosity and stagecraft as opposed to a celebration of the simplest, purest joys of musical creation. But on the other hand there's Jimi Hendrix the composer, the man capable of beautiful and entertaining songs, well-constructed and well-sung (it goes without saying well-played as well) and Jimi Hendrix the interpreter, who could bring such new visions to cover material that he was practically engaged in the art of 'recomposition' anyway. Jimi Hendrix the flamboyant masturbatory king of guitar-noodle and Jimi Hendrix the incredibly talented guitarist player: those two are not the same beast. It's the first one that gets the press, but it's the second one radio is more likely to play. It's the second one that deserves to be heard.

Predictably, any double-album released by Jimi Hendrix is going to contain both 'faces' of the man - and just as predictably the ratio is going to be tipped in favour of the guitar-noodler. Just as predictably, my single-disc remedy is going to consist largely (but not entirely) of me stripping away the noodling and retaining the songs.

I grew to like this album after listening to it. I started it with trepidation, fearing seventy minutes of "The Star-Spangled Banner". Knowing Hendrix mostly for those FM radio staples he has about a dozen of, and knowing that this album contained a handful of them, I was expecting to love the staples and hate the noodles. That's not quite what happened. But it's close enough.

Electric Ladyland

Side one
  1. Crosstown Traffic (2:25)
  2. Gypsy Eyes (3:43)
  3. Long Hot Summer Night (3:27)
  4. House Burning Down (4:33)
  5. All Along the Watchtower (4:01)
Side two
  1. Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland) (2:11)
  2. 1983... (A Mermaid I Should Turn to Be) (13:39)
  3. Voodoo Child (Slight Return) (5:12)

The box below contains the entire contents of my single-disc version of this album, hosted by YouTube. Click on the box itself to reveal the scrollbars, and click on any of the scrollbars to hear the music.

» Electric Ladyland, Single-Disc Version «

...And the Gods Made Love: lose

Apparently, we're meant to believe that a minute of whooshing noise and studio dickery knocked 'em dead back in 1968. Those were simpler times, evidently.

Have You Ever Been (to Electric Ladyland): keep (side two, track one)

This is pretty conventional, actually. a piece of R&B balladry that could have fit on a Motown album (maybe not a 7" though) of the era, except for a falling-apart sloppiness that is actually kind of endearing and of course except for that Hendrix-sounding guitar. Hendrix is meant to have been really pleased with how the vocals turned out on this one, and his multitracked harmonies are indeed well done. I like that this album's 'title track' sounds nothing like the album's raison d'être, standing apart as musically conservative more than convention-breaking. A real grower, though, this one: overlooked on an album filled with rock-radio 'classics'.

It's already strange for an eight-song album not to have four songs on each side. But with the length of the other two songs on the b-side, it would have been even more balanced, time-wise, to put six songs on side one and two on side two. But that would have looked silly. I'm putting the shortest of my eight songs on the b-side, as side two track one,  which is an odd place for a title track, but it fits sonically.

Crosstown Traffic: keep (side one, track one)

For such a sprawling album, it's amazing that Electric Ladyland starts off with three tiny little tracks back-to-back. It is a well-programmed album, and after the intro and the soul-man bit, this is the 'pop song' - not 'pop' as in 'candyfloss', but something most eminently playable on AM radio. Catchy, if you will. 'Crosstown Traffic' really is a remarkable achievement, a swaggering funk-rock groove condensed into a mere 145 seconds. Verse-chorus-verse, distilled to the essence and exciting as hell. The main riff is performed on kazoo, which is silly, but it really does work. Hendrix really did know how to craft a song, and for someone whose main legacy is the extended running-time of 'rock' in the 70s and onward, it's interesting how many of his most memorable tracks fail to crack the three-minute barrier.

This is an obvious lapel-grabbing album-opener. It's not the title-track, but I think it's a great way to get the single-length off the ground. Side one, track one.

Voodoo Chile: lose

...And then the brevity goes out the window. This isn't teeth-on-strings Hendrix exactly, because it's a jam with Steve Winwood on organ. So it's got more organ than Hendrix jams tend to. But it is a huge fifteen-minute jam. And a jam on a song that appears elsewhere on this album in a briefer form. So no surprises for guessing whether I keep it or bin it. But it really doesn't deserve inclusion. It has an authentic blues feel for the first few minutes, but then it becomes "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida". There might be value to performances like this (a) done live, on the night and/or (b) if you're stoned. But it is this very endless jamming that, I think, obscures what Hendrix's legacy could otherwise be. His actual albums don't have as much of it as all the stuff that's come out posthumously, but there's still more than there needs to be. It's not that I have anything against fifteen-minute songs. Just I have something against five-minute songs pointlessly stretched out to fifteen.

Little Miss Strange: lose

Noel Redding's time in the sun, and a shocking reminder that this album really was released in 1968. After all, this and not the remainder of this album is what radio sounded like in 1968, and hearing this song in this context really does underline how out-of-time Hendrix was, since this particular track seems hopelessly retro and twee while much of the rest of this album is still quite playable on radio today. This song isn't an embarrassment, and it's not the worst track on this album, but it does stick out like a sore thumb. Plus, for all intents and purposes it's a song written and performed by an outsider, like Hendrix's own "Star Spangled Banner" stuck on a U2 album.

Long Hot Summer Night: keep (side one, track three)

That title is not what he actually sings in the song, but oh well. It makes more sense anyway. This is an impressive enough song, too much lead guitar and ridiculous stereo separation, but it's a kind of blues-based slow-burner, unassuming and mildly attractive. It doesn't grab you by the lapels as does much of this album, and as such leaves a better impression that some of more excessive moments here.

I like this song, and I'm glad to include it, but it doesn't really stand out, so smack-dab in the middle of side one, track three, is a good place for it. It follows and is followed by 'harder' bluesy songs. So it's a slight pause for breath.

Come On (Let the Good Times Roll): lose

A pretty boring cover song. Thirty years of bar bands sounding exactly like this has dulled whatever impact this might have had back in the day, as does the knowledge that Hendrix likely knocked out stuff like this in his sleep. I can certainly relate: sleep is exactly where hearing it puts me.

Gypsy Eyes: keep (side one, track two)

This is a strange one. It's barely a song at all really - mostly it's an appropriately voodoo-like guitar riff played over a train-track drumbeat. That's really all it is, but somehow it manages to be fabulous. The lyrics are meant to discuss Hendrix's mother, not that that's the impression you'd get from a casual listen. Like the five minute version of 'Voodoo Child' that ends this album, this is a guitar-lesson. But that song uses the guitar to fill all the air. This one is a lot sparser, a lot looser. While it's not really a funk song, it is composed mostly of the same ingredients as a funk song. It has the same brute loose-limbed physicality to it. All in all, it's quite compelling: not blues but blues-like, not funk but funky.

This song is buried rather deep in the double. I think it deserves a more prominent place, so I put it directly after 'Crosstown Traffic' as the second song in the collection. My side one is pretty much entirely 'commercial' stuff, and this song is plenty commercial, despite sounding nothing at all like anything on the radio, be it 1968 or today.

Burning of the Midnight Lamp: lose

This track is beguiling in its own way, a summer-of-love evocation of time and space, a bit silly (featuring a harpsichord and featuring a description of loneliness as 'such a drag') but well-meaning, and with a taking-flight vibe to it that is quite attractive. The thing is, though, that Electric Ladyland is not a summer-of-love album, not in chronology and not in temperament. The old strategy of beefing up your double-length by sticking ancient non-album tracks on it is never an attractive one, for what the album gains in 'starpower' it loses in thematic unity and reason to exist. After all, if an album's worth was measured by how many singles it featured, history's best albums would all be 'greatest hits' compilations.

Rainy Day, Dream Away: lose

Nothing at all to do with the Experience, this is Hendrix 'jamming' with a sax player and an organist. And with Buddy Miles. I guess it was a jam that Hendrix himself was impressed with, enough to break it in two and start both side three and side four with it. An obviously knocked-off song-cum-excuse-for-jamming, it's meant to evoke, I think, a careless, uneventful 'rainy day' - passing the time while prevented from anything of substance. And though the guitar (predictably enough) gets around to working up a fury soon enough, by and large he suceeds at evoking that. But why would we want to listen to that? It's not offensive, unless you find such pointlessly empty jamming offensive.

1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be): keep (side two, track three)

You could be excused for thinking, in 1968, that by 1983 all music would sound like this. We have Michael Jackson and Duran Duran to thank for proving that prediction wrong, but really, as fourteen-minute songs go, this one is pretty harmless. The song itself, unsurprisingly, stops about five minutes in, but what for me gives this the edge is that for the remaining nine minutes Hendrix is less interested in using his guitar ability for inspiring awe and more interested in establishing a mood. He succeeds: a mood that is more astral than aquatic. That doesn't matter, since the merman stuff is nonsense anyway and not the point. The point is the 'trippiness', and let's face it, 'trippiness' is in no small part why people buy Hendrix albums. So this makes the cut for me, much to my own surprise. After all, if I strip off all the jamming, I don't really have a Jimi Hendrix album, do I?

This is obviously a side-two thing, and I let it take up the whole of the middle of side two: the second of three songs.

Moon, Turn the Tides... Gently Gently Away: lose

At this point, I have no idea what's going on. I was ready to compare this to the first track, a minute-long chunk of noise with a dreadful title. It would appear, though, that there's nothing here but chaos: excluding the 'rainy' jam session, this whole side is a bit of a single piece that you can break into three: the song bit, the jammy bit, and the minute of noise. Some versions of this album call just the song bit '1983' and the remainder (ten minutes) 'Moon'. The version I have joins the song bit and the jammy bit and leaves the chunk-of-noise at the end. By now I don't care, though: I'm happy to lop off the noise and bin it, but for the sake of completeness, if you want to include it, go ahead. It's just a minute; it changes nothing either way.

Still Raining, Still Dreaming: lose

Like this wasn't boring enough the first time out.

House Burning Down: keep (side one, track four)

This is probably the single track on the whole album that it's toughest to have an opinion on. It's Hendrix at his most Hendrix-esque, with guitars-a-plenty but in service of a proper composition. The lyrics, about the riots then happening in the USA, are a bit more explicitly political than the rest of the album. I include it, more because it doesn't suck than because it's great. It really does defy analysis though, because it's competent but unexceptional work. Good guitar, but so what? This is Hendrix for Christ's sake.

I had a hard time deciding whether this should come before or after 'All Along the Watchtower'. In the end, I followed Hendrix's lead and put it first, as track four of side one, largely because it creates a three-song 'bluesy' suite in the middle of side one.

All Along the Watchtower: keep (side one, track five)

Hendrix was a good songwriter when he wanted to be, but not so great that Dylan can't show him up on his own album. Hendrix flubs the lyrics but nails the spirit, bringing the song a smoky voodoo feel it had lacked on Dylan's sparse original, but one that Dylan liked so much that he adopted it and thereafter took to covering a cover of his own song in concert. This is a quartet performance, with Dylan's four-chord chassis hammered out with a martial feel and Hendrix spraying out 'licks' whenever he's not singing. It might have been formulaic, but it retains a freshness here, maybe because it's performed with an unblinking authority. You could argue that Hendrix lacks subtlety, screaming through a bullhorn what Dylan, a master of musical restraint, merely implies. It's ultimately futile, though, to worry about whether this or Dylan's is the 'ultimate' take on this composition: both are great, in completely different ways.

So I let this song finish side one, as track five. It gives a pretty prominent position to what is, after all, a cover song, and to talk about the legacy of this song down the years is, to a certain extent, to be committing an anachronism. But it kind of gives 'House Burning Down' a context, or rather it widens the scope of that song to address society as a whole, in a more cryptic way. Plus it asks a lot to ask almost any song to follow up this one. So this one gets followed up by needle-silence.

Voodoo Child (Slight Return): keep (side two, track three)

There are two ways to listen to this song. You can listen to the composition in its entirety, a swaggering take on blues tradition with a strong vocal performance by Jimi Hendrix and an impressively big rhythm section. Alternately, as most people do, you can strip away everything else and merely listen tho this as a five-minute guitar lesson. And yes, the guitar performance is filled with technical prowess and conveys a range of emotions. But therein lies the rub of Jimi Hendrix: if you listen to music for its emotional response (and hopefully you do), do you find that emotional response in instrumental performance, of do you find it in other places, like for example in the composition of the song itself? This is what either makes you love Hendrix or leaves you cold: to what extent does 'he plays the guitar really well' suffice in the service of good music? In this particular case, I think it succeeds, largely because it's in service of an attractive blues song. But down this avenue lies not only the worst of Hendrix's live macho posturing and endless noodling but a million garish horrors in 'rock music' history. Heavy metal is born in the playing time of this song, and that's a crime for which Hendrix might perhaps have served jail time, but to condemn what came after this song isn't to condemn this song itself, which is much more intelligent and emotionally resonant than most heavy metal.

Where can you go from here? Nowhere, really, which is why Hendrix finished his album on this high note and why I do too. A wake-up call and a return to earth after 13 minutes of spaciness, and a clear 'high note' to bring the album to a conclusion.

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