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When Jimi Hendrix died in 1970, he was working on an even more epic follow-up to his double-record sonic landmark Electric Ladyland. Songs from these sessions appeared on various posthumous albums through the years, hitting a wretched low on 1995’s Voodoo Soup. That collection of splicings, outtakes, and overdubs (including tracks re-recorded by the Knack’s drummer) stands as one of the sickest dishonors-to-the-dead in music history, akin to when MGM added strings and backing vocals to Hank Williams’ hits back in the ’50s. First Rays corrects this rank blasphemy and reveals that Hendrix had yet to peak when he died. The record’s 17 songs pay tribute to Hendrix’s days on the chitlin’ circuit and also foreshadow the ’70s funk revolution. “Dolly Dagger” and “Room Full of Mirrors” are two of Hendrix’s best songs, period. The lovely ballads “Angel” and “Drifting” are here in definitive versions that show a debt to Curtis Mayfield and prove that Hendrix was a great singer as well as a great guitarist. Most of all, First Rays proves that Hendrix was exploring right until the end, and these final recordings mark a radical departure from Electric Ladyland’s spacey psychedelia. Despite trippy lyrics and song titles like “Astro Man,” this music is grounded in the blues even as it explodes the form: It’s atom-bomb R&B that never panders to the excesses of the fusion noodling that was to come. A worthy reconstruction of Hendrix’s intentions, the project is part of MCA’s long-overdue rescue of the entire Hendrix catalog; the new reissues use the first-generation master tapes for the first time since the original vinyl releases. The package includes lyric sheets from local Hendrix collector Bob Terry and a careful (damn near devout) presentation of the material that finally does justice
to the Hendrix musical legacy.