Electric Ladyland retains its well-deserved acclaim.
It’s been 50 years since the standard narrative’s best year in rock. It’s also that time of year when the box sets for old people come out just in time for Christmas. To stand out right now, a reissue package needs something exceptional, or something unusual. New material from Jimi Hendrix might not have that draw; probably no artist has as high a ratio as vault releases to official-while-alive releases as he does. On the other hand, putting his most ambitious album together with a disc of demos and a live show might offer something exceptional. The Electric Ladyland deluxe edition reissue, it turns out, falls somewhere in the middle.
The original album itself offers few faults and a surplus of highlights. Hendrix’s final and most ambitious studio album, it secures his position as the towering guitar giant of the era. The album – a double-LP that makes up the first disc of this set – mixes plenty of standout classic rock staples like “All Along the Watchtower” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” with the weirder cuts that give the album its specific flavor. The group’s ability to blend rock, blues, and funk into its own spacey vision remains unrivaled. Even a track like the lengthy “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” offers enough surprises to avoid potential acidic wanderings. With Hendrix’s guitar in peak form, his attention to detail at its sharpest and his studio experimentations well honed, Electric Ladyland retains its well-deserved acclaim.
The second disc explains itself with its convoluted titling: At Last…The Beginning: The Making of Electric Ladyland: The Early Takes. Where the final album came from an electric guitar and a band willing to go anywhere, these demos focus on a subdued, acoustic Hendrix. More than half of them come from self-recorded playing in a hotel (and someone has the gall to call the room during “Gypsy Eyes”). In this setting, they provide some fascination; Hendrix’s mythology centers on setting guitars on fire, not on meticulously and softly working out new tunes. A couple songs work through their development. “Long Hot Summer Night” gets three (apparently out of four) demos in the hotel, the last of which offers more long than later versions. The first, instrumental studio take gets a rolling piano, and by take 14 (the second we hear), the song begins to come into form. The sequence develops a new appreciation for the song.
Too little of this material provides that sort of insight, though. In the past few weeks archival releases for Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and the Beatles’ White Album have revealed the depth that old outtakes and demos can lend to familiar songs. The former, More Blood, More Tracks shows a peculiar process resulting in sudden shift in direction. The latter shows a band going everywhere, trying everything, suggesting the possibility of an infinite dive into a classic album. These Hendrix takes, while often intriguing, don’t do that. They provide the bonus disc for a special edition, but they don’t fill out the history of a classic album the way that other sets have done so, whether because of a lack a available material, the nature of Hendrix’s process or the brevity of curatorial oversight.
The third disc, Jimi Hendrix Experience: Live At the Hollywood Bowl 9/14/68 captures the Experience about a month before the release of Electric Ladyland. The inclusion of this show makes only some sense. Given the timing of the show, the group only plays one new cut, so while it captures where the Experience was during the making of Ladyland, it doesn’t show these particular songs in a new light (to be fair, neither fall 1968 setlists nor that winter’s European tour generally highlighted the album). The trio would start to head toward the breakup shortly after this release, so catching them now works. The band plays well, but the show doesn’t stand out for them. The recording quality and technical glitches weaken it and it won’t serve as a replacement for, say, the Winterland sets from a few weeks later. The novelty in the stage banter and the audience behavior make the concert not redundant, but casual fans won’t need it.
Complaints about the set tend toward the nitpicky, but the 50th anniversary edition of such an essential album deserves a proper treatment. The Hendrix vaults must be nearly empty by now – though presumably soundboard recordings of various shows will appear for a while yet – and it shows here. The set could have used another disc, connecting the hushed demos to the final forms or drawing out discarded ideas. Asking for a clean, novel concert requests too much at this point in Hendrix releases, but such material could have put an ideal cap on the set. As it is, the set contains three discs of masterful music, but that feels like not enough, given Electric Ladyland as a starting point.