Thursday, November 8, 2018

Review: Jimi Hendrix's 'Electric Ladyland: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition'

Note: I revised this review with more details regarding the audio on ll/10/18.

Jimi Hendrix’s abilities as a musician came together immediately. On his very first album, he was already manipulating the strings like a master puppeteer. It took him slightly longer to fully develop as a songwriter and record maker, but once he did—holy shit!—Electric Ladyland. Like all great double albums from Blonde on Blonde to Sign O’ the Times and beyond, this is the sound of an artist of limitless imagination free to explore and exploit his every idea with magical abandon. Everything great about Jimi Hendrix froths from the grooves of Electric Ladyland. Hendrix the interpreter was never better than when teaching Bob Dylan—Bob Dylan!—how it’s done with “All Along the Watchtower”. Hendrix the singer reaches heights never before hinted at with his Curtis Mayfield-worthy falsetto on “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)”. Hendrix the bluesman stretches from the Mississippi Delta to Neptune on “Voodoo Chile”. With “Burning of the Midnight Lamp”, Hendrix the pop craftsman pulls one of psychedelia’s bubbliest nuggets from his cauldron. Hendrix the doobie-sucking jazzbo lays back and grooves on “Rainy Day, Dream Away”. Hendrix the town crier shouts of racial injustice in “House Burning Down”.  Hendrix the mind melting prankster forges “…And the Gods Made Love”, and Hendrix the avant-garde-sci-fi-Walt Disney animates “1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”/ “Moon, Turn the Tides…Gently, Gently Away”. Hendrix the guitarist, of course, shines and burns and glows on every goddamn track.

A creation this momentous could not be forgotten on its 50th anniversary, especially considering how awash we currently are in 50th anniversary releases. Legacy Recordings is pulling out the stops with a huge anniversary edition of Electric Ladyland. The big news of this box is that while most bloated anniversary sets cheap out by placing the majority of rarities on CDs, Electric Ladyland: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition is available in a vinyl edition that includes everything on wax: the original double-album, the set of demos, and the live album from the Hollywood Bowl. Why don’t they all do this?

While early reviews on the CD edition of the Electric Ladyland: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition warn of excessive loudness and clipping, Im happy to note that Ive noticed no such issues with the all-analog mastering for vinyl. I compared this new set with the Electric Ladyland material on my nice, old copy of Smash Hits and the new discs are more detailed and not much louder to the naked ear. However, there is a persistent hiss throughout all of the discs on this set, though it is only really noticeable during quiet passages while listening on headphones.

 The general audio quality of the demos varies from the full-band, pro quality of “1983” (as “Angel Caterina”) and “Little Miss Strange” to relatively hi-fi home recordings of “Angel”, “Gypsy”, and “Voodoo Chile” to recordings of rarer stuff such as “Snowballs at My Window” and “My Friend”, on which it sounds like Hendrix got his mouth in front of the mic while picking a guitar stored in his closet. However, the sound quality of the live set recorded at the Hollywood Bowl on September 14, 1968, ranges from mediocre to outright unlistenable. The recordings on the first disc in the set suffers from tinny drums and distorted vocals. The second disc sounds like it’s playing through totally blown speakers. The liner notes admit that this live album is bootleg quality for whatever that’s worth. 

The set also includes a blu-ray disc including 5.1 surround mixes of the original album and the original stereo mix. I’m not set up for 5.1, though I’ve read very positive things about that mix. The stereo mix, however, is considerably harsher than the all-analog vinyl. The blu-ray also includes one video feature: At Last…The Beginning: The Making of Electric Ladyland, a 1997 documentary for the Classic Albums series. It features a fair share of Hendrix footage and memories from many of the album’s original cast, including Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding, Steve Winwood, Jack Casady, Eddie Kramer, and Chas Chandler. For this release, At Last…The Beginning is expanded by 40 minutes, making a fine documentary even better.

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