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First Rays of the New Rising Sun by Jimi Hendrix (1997)

Hendrix was one of the most influential and innovative guitarists in history. His fingers seemed to dance perfectly around the fretboard with only minimal intervention from his brain. He did for distortion and feedback what the wheel did for transportation, and he utilized an assortment of effects to get an endless variety of sounds from his overworked Stratocasters. Of course, you knew all that.

What I find most compelling about Hendrix is not his guitar-god status, but the humanity that comes through in his lyrics. He rarely resorted to the bragging and bravado favored by artists of today. Instead, his songs are infused with hopes, dreams, frustrations, and self-doubts. He frequently pondered the question of whether life was worth living.

On First Rays of the New Rising Sun, the answer to that question seems to be a resounding yes. In many ways this CD is more accessible than his previous studio effort, the apocalyptic masterpiece Electric Ladyland. It depicts a man full of artistic energy, whose music was constantly evolving and changing. If Ladyland is comparable to The Beatles' White Album, then First Rays is more like Band on the Run than Let It Be. The CD is chock full of up-tempo rock tunes which incorporate more funk rhythms than his early work. He seemed to be moving in a direction more comparable to Prince than to 70s heavy metal, the genre of music that he almost single-handedly invented on his Are You Experienced? album in 1967. In fact, one of my favorite tunes on this CD, "Ezy Ryder," would fit right in on one of The Purple One's recent albums.

First Rays of the New Rising Sun consists of material that was near completion at the time of Hendrix' death in 1970. It is comprised of songs that were released on three posthumous albums in the early 70s: The Cry of Love, Rainbow Bridge, and War Heroes. These albums went out of circulation a few years after they were released, but the songs reappeared on various Hendrix compilations over the decades. First Rays is, according to Wikipedia, "a 'concept compilation' attempting to recreate the album Jimi Hendrix was working on at the time of his death in 1970, as closely as is feasible to how he would have wanted it (based on recordings and notes he made during the last months of his life)."

Although the general mood of the CD is upbeat, sources of conflict in Jimi's life surface in the lyrics. In the opening track, "Freedom," he tells somebody, "Get off of my back if you want to get out of here alive." In the delightfully Dylanesque "My Friend," he sings about the isolation which seemed to haunt his existence as a famous musician. The CD also finds our hero obsessed with various women in songs like "Izabella," "Night Flying Bird," "Dolly Dagger," and "Stepping Stone" (a Hendrix original, not to be confused with the Monkees tune of the same name). Stardom seemed to have brought Jimi more than his fair share of girlfriend problems. This is completely understandable, given his age at the time. I think most of us who live past our 20s probably look back on that era of our lives as a time of bad relationships, from which we emerge scraped and bruised, but much wiser.

Of all the great songs on the album, my two favorites are, without a doubt, the ballads that evoke his classic composition "The Wind Cries Mary." One of them, "Drifting," is a beautiful dreamlike love song which shows Jimi at his most vulnerable: "Drifting on a sea of old heartbreaks, on a lifeboat sailing for your love." The other one, "Angel," is possibly the best song he ever wrote, in which he describes a visitation by a female angel who, he says, "stayed with me just long enough to rescue me." He leaves it up to us to decide whether his angel is a mere mortal or a real celestial entity. He tells her, "Fly on my sweet angel, tomorrow I'll be by your side." The lyrics are an eerie foreshadowing of the artist's death, which occurred only months after the song was recorded.

We can only speculate how many more albums Hendrix would have recorded had he lived a normal lifespan, but it's clear from the ambition displayed in this last work that it wasn't meant to be his last. First Rays of the New Rising Sun is well worth the price for serious and casual Hendrix fans alike, and the version of the disc which I own includes a bonus DVD about the making of the compilation.

Reviewed by Aaron Shore 1/1/11

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