By Chris Moore:
RATING: 2.5 / 5 stars
Let me begin by saying I love and have the utmost respect for Jimi Hendrix’s music, as much if not more than the average music fan. Although many simply know a couple hits (and are, even from that sampling, able to acknowledge the fact that he was a guitar legend), I have heard all of his albums multiple times — hits, misses, deep tracks, and all.
Although Electric Ladyland is widely considered the pinnacle of his recording career, I must adamantly argue that it is not.
There is no denying the mastery that Hendrix demonstrates on the third and final studio release of his brief career. Even on a track like “Little Miss Strange,” his guitarwork is intricate, interesting, and unsurpassed. “Voodoo Chile” is a testament to his mastery (and his justification for moving beyond) the blues. And his production on “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” is nothing short of expansive and impressive.
And yet, great songs do not in and of themselves a great album make.
To be fair, there are some excellent tracks on this album. In addition to those aforementioned gems, the highlights of Electric Ladyland are certainly to be found in the brilliant rock’n’roll of “Crosstown Traffic” and their electrified take on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” a version that redefined the way Dylan himself approached the song in concert.
On Electric Ladyland, the Jimi Hendrix Experience is tighter and yet more relaxed than on any previous release. Hendrix is more experimental stylistically and vocally, Noel Redding’s bass parts are even more manically masterful, and Mitch Mitchell’s drums are both an anchor and a vivid instrument unto themselves. There’s something compelling about a band that can run through a fourteen minute blazing blues epic like “Voodoo Chile” and go on to construct such a melancholy opening as you find on “Burning of the Midnight Lamp.”
Where this album begins to fall short is in all the nooks and crannies, all the self-indulgent jams that stretch some wonderful tracks out beyond a reasonable length, all the inferior, overly-simplistic tracks that never would have found their way onto a previous Experience release.
From the opening, Electric Ladyland is a unique and exciting album. “…And the Gods Made Love” is a forgettable, albeit tone-setting album opener. “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” is a warm, inviting, and promising number. “Crosstown Traffic” and “Voodoo Chile” make good on that invitation, putting an outstandingly tight, single-worthy track back to back with a jam-based track that takes its time — a quarter of an hour, to be more precise.
After this is where the album loses some of its focus.
The Redding-penned “Little Miss Strange” suffers from the same assessment as Axis: Bold As Love‘s “She’s So Fine”: it’s okay. Nothing more, nothing less — neither the track you’ll run to first, nor the track you’ll skip.
Then comes a trio of tunes that are not terribly impressive. “Long Hot Summer Night” is good, “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)” is an excellent, unique take on this cover, and “Gypsy Eyes” has its moments. If this is the best that can be said about these tracks, then they have no business being at the heart of a Jimi Hendrix Experience album.
I can even look beyond the ho-hum nature of “Rainy Day, Dream Away,” if only for its thematic, lyrical tie-in three tracks later on “Still Raining, Still Dreaming,” but it never ceases to amaze me how, depending on the artist and on the general trends in music criticism at the time, an album that has strong ties to what has come before can either be a masterful sampling of genres or a derivative romp in mediocrity. In this case, the former was decided upon, as evidenced by the slew of five-star ratings the album has accrued. Still, I find it difficult to view some of these reviews as unbiased. Is Electric Ladyland a breakthrough effort, an album that took the ways we view genres and recordings and turned them upside down? Yes. But is that to say it should overshadow the cohesion, uniqueness, and beautifully tight arrangements of Are You Experienced? Should it cause us to set Axis: Bold As Love aside as a sophomoric, somewhat forgettable effort?
Let us not forget that this is an album with a track like “Moon, Turn the Tides… gently gently away,” a song with no content and with no discernible purpose as anything more than a transition between tracks, perhaps a tone setting device.
By the time “House Burning Down” comes, I often find myself suffering from jam fatigue. This is an excellent track, and yet I have a hard time getting fired up for it, or for the album-closing “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).”
I do find myself seeking sweet refuge in the track that comes between them… “All Along the Watchtower.”
This is what Electric Ladyland lacks — others may praise the jazz mentality of this record, but I find myself yearning for the rock’n’roll mentality that Jimi Hendrix practically created on his first two releases. Others see the expansive and the interpretive as mastery, but I long for the tightness and originality of those early Jimi Hendrix recordings — hits like “Purple Haze,” “Stone Free,” and “Bold As Love” and deep tracks like “Love or Confusion,” “51st Anniversary,” “Spanish Castle Magic,” and “Little Wing.”
It is no wonder that John Mayer has gone to the Hendrix well thrice for covers — an excellent version of “Wait Until Tomorrow” for the Experience-imitating John Mayer Trio, an okay take on “Bold As Love” on Continuum, and “The Wind Cries Mary” live in concert. After all, his career has generally followed the patterns I see in Hendrix’s: a mind-blowing debut, a strong follow-up, and a critically acclaimed, if inferior third release. Say what you will about Mayer — channeling Hendrix, however criticized a move it may be in some circles, has worked as planned.
So, I will continue listening to Electric Ladyland and loving it at times. For me, it can’t compare to what came before, and to what may have come after…