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The Major Lift

By John Brodeur

If there’s one thing the major record labels do well to serve the proverbial bottom line, it’s churn out “new” product by the tried-and-true warhorses. Remaster, remix, repackage, and so forth. Who needs new ideas when the old ones still generate profit? So one can only imagine the collective cha-ching sound made by Sony Music suits when they were given the news of an unreleased album from the godfather of psychedelic rock, Jimi Hendrix. Valleys of Neptune is being touted as a pretty big deal, naturally: It’s a collection of 12 previously unreleased studio recordings, made in New York and London in 1967 and ’69, mostly featuring the original Experience lineup of Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding. (Redding’s replacement, Billy Cox, appears on three tracks.) The release should spark new interest in the man widely regarded as the greatest rock guitarist of all time. If nothing else, it gets him back on the cover of Rolling Stone. (The music press and the music industry at least have one thing in common—they both know Hendrix moves units.)

But is Valleys any good? I’ll put it this way: If this is your first time hearing the Jimi Hendrix Experience, you’ll almost certainly want to hear more. There are moments here that approach greatness: an instrumental jam on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”; Mitchell’s full-on drum solo on “Fire”; Jimi’s sing-along solo on “Hear My Train A-Comin’.” But, honestly? If you’ve spent any time at all with the catalog, you’ll realize these are generally inferior takes of stuff you’ve heard a million times before. Right from the opening “Stone Free,” a certain lack of electricity is notable—most of the versions here pale in comparison to their previously released counterparts. It’s not quite a barrel-scraper, but the omnipresent amp hiss on “Red House” proves the point: This is collection of rehearsal tapes and studio seconds that only truly belongs in the collection of a Hendrix completist.

This is just the beginning of an excavation series that will see the Hendrix tape closets raided further in the coming months and years. But along with that comes a series of reissues that should be the real focal point. Axis: Bold as Love is the first of the catalog titles to get the treatment. Unlike the aforementioned mish-mash, this thing is the real deal. The sound quality is superb, the package is gorgeous, and the accompanying DVD documentary, featuring studio engineer Eddie Kramer, is well worth watching. Take another listen to “Spanish Castle Magic” and “Little Wing” before even giving Valleys of Neptune a second thought.

From a lost album by a rock pioneer to an artist of nearly the same vintage, still quietly plugging along: Peter Wolf, voice of the J. Geils Band, is back this week with his seventh solo record, Midnight Souvenirs. The 64-year-old rocker teamed up with several hitmaking cowriters for his first album in eight years, and while the character is still there (he still has that inimitable way of talk-singing) his accuracy isn’t what it used to be. He throws himself into notes and dives down through melodies like he’s just trying to get to the other side. These weaknesses are put into stark relief on the album’s duets: Matched against the pitch- perfect Shelby Lynne or Neko Case, Wolf sounds haggard; he’s no better alongside Merle Haggard, who shares the bill on album-closer “It’s Too Late for Me.” He’s simply not the right singer for the commercial gloss of some of these songs. As ever, he’s most in his element on the impossibly cheesy blues-rock numbers like “Watch Her Move”—a low point for Souvenirs but a high point for Wolf. Fitting.

The music-loving public’s ongoing reconsideration of Hall and Oates gets a mark in the “win” column with Interpreting the Masters Volume I: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates, the latest from The Bird and the Bee. The third release from producer-keyboardist Greg Kurstin and singer Inara George is a total hoot; the duo rightly treat the eight covers (candy-coated lead single “Heard It on the Radio” is an original track written in “tribute”) like the gold-standard pop songs they are. George sings all of Hall’s idiosyncratic ad-libs verbatim (“ooohbutitswildwoooo”), showing that this is no goof: The duo’s love for the source material is evident in every note. Your enjoyment of this record will likely come down to your relationship to Hall and Oates, but perhaps it shouldn’t: You’ll have “Rich Girl” and “I Can’t Go for That” stuck in your head for days after hearing these synthed-out takes, which has nothing to do with kitsch and everything to do with the fact that they are top-shelf pop singles.

Top-shelf is a fine way to describe the heartbreak beats on The Sea, the sophomore release from Corinne Bailey Rae. Seemingly lost in the shuffle these last few months but absolutely worth seeking out, this is a terrific record marked by significant personal loss. It’s a song cycle addressing the 2008 overdose death of Rae’s husband and its emotional aftermath, in tones that are dynamic and deeply affecting. The heaviness is palpable on opener “Are You Here,” where the fragility in Rae’s voice belies the snappy, crystalline production (which should itself earn the artist another Grammy nomination or two). The arrangements and performances, from the ’60s-garage stylings of “Paper Hearts” to the massive crescendo of single “I’d Do It All Again,” are uniformly brilliant. But it’s the singer’s evocatively mournful sigh that makes The Sea worth your bottom dollar. This is the best put-away-the-sharp-objects pop record you’re likely to hear this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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