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The Jimi Hendrix Experience
BBC Sessions
(MCA/Experience Hendrix)

Back in 1988, when Rykodisc first issued some of the BBC recordings made in the late '60s by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, it seemed impossible to imagine there was a facet of Hendrix's legacy that hadn't been documented ad nauseum in the years following his 1970 death. The countless live albums, demos, and studio leftovers reheated by bootleggers and major-label grave robbers -- all were fitting given the breadth of Hendrix's genius and influence, but only a few actually enhanced the work released between the Experience's '67 debut (Are You Experienced?) and the last album released before the visionary guitarist's unfortunate passing (1970's Band of Gypsys).

Rykodisc's Radio One, however, captured the Experience at a crucial time -- just after the brilliant first album and before Hendrix's reputation as a blazing guitar hero overrode his absolute mastery in the recording studio. Instead of the usual set lists of the endless posthumously released live sets, we got a full picture of Hendrix as six-string hot-dogger ("Driving South"), howling bluesman ("Catfish Blues," "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man,"), goofy rocker ("Day Tripper," "Hound Dog"), and, of course, trailblazing assimilationist (the whole damn CD).

BBC Sessions is even more of a revelation, offering everything from the Rykodisc collection and more than an hour's worth of additional material, including scintillating alternate takes and a slew of previously unissued takes (a cover of "I Was Made to Love Her," featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica, for example) and rarely performed items from the Hendrix catalog, from "Wait Until Tomorrow" to "Love or Confusion." And unlike Radio One, Sessions features the hilarious DJ intros from the original air checks. Very, um, groovy.

Because the BBC's recording equipment offered only no-frills multitracking capabilities, the Hendrix radio sessions, though sonically topnotch, lack the radiant studio polish and densely layered artistry of Axis: Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland. But because the Experience hadn't yet begun to stretch out the songs to accommodate Hendrix's improvisations, BBC Sessions offers the closest look yet at what the group sounded like during their 1967 storm trooping of the British club scene. Like the Rolling Stones of Now! and Bob Dylan circa Highway 61 Revisited, there's a cocky, swaggering exuberance in this music -- a mix of newfound confidence and the elation of self-discovery -- that helps to make even the hoariest of Hendrix staples sound fresh and new again (a seemingly impossible feat given the massive AOR exposure of "Foxy Lady," "Hey Joe," and "Purple Haze").

The Jimi Hendrix Experience undoubtedly went on to make better music in the studio and in concert, as Hendrix honed his talents to a point that his ideas could not be contained within a three-minute rocker. Still, BBC Sessions ranks alongside Hendrix in the West, At Winterland, and South Saturn Delta as one of the most illuminating and useful items in the ever-expanding canon of Jimi Hendrix reissues.

-- John Floyd

Tom Waits
Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years

In 1983 Tom Waits cast aside his reputation as America's barroom balladeer with the release of Swordfishtrombones, a bold, powerful statement that kicked off a string of seven albums for Island Records. Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years attempts to bring together the best moments from those innovative recordings.

Aside from summing up the last 15 years of Waits' career, the 23 songs serve as an excellent introduction for the uninitiated. Bear in mind, however, that this is not music for casual listening; Beautiful Maladies is a challenging mixture of Waits' growling, gravelly voice, exotic instruments, and dark themes peppered with humor and insight.

Included on the release are some of the more cacophonous songs from Swordfishtrombones and its follow-up albums, Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years. Hammering dwarves and dark cities "beyond the gopher holes" loom in "Underground," and the pounding rhythm in "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six" conjures images of a chain gang laying railroad track. "Franks Wild Years" is a dark, humorous jazz tune about a man who has a breakdown and torches his house over a blind Chihuahua named Carlos.

Big Time, from 1988, was a greatest hits of sorts, featuring many of the songs on Maladies, but in live form. Two of the live versions, "Cold, Cold Ground" and "Strange Weather," are included here. It's unfortunate the studio version of "Way Down in the Hole" was chosen for Maladies; the evangelical rantings from Big Time suit it much better.

In putting together this collection, it must have been hard deciding just what to leave out. Only three songs from the Grammy-winning Bone Machine are included: the apocalyptic "Earth Died Screaming"; "Jesus Gonna Be Here," about a man pining for the coming of the Lord ("I'm gonna watch the horizon/For a brand new Ford"); and the raucous "I Don't Wanna Grow Up."

The Black Rider, Waits' collaboration with William S. Burroughs and writer-director Robert Wilson, provides "November," an eerie, somber piece with Greg Cohen on bass and Don Neely playing a warbling musical saw. But you'll have to buy Rider to hear any of the pieces with Burroughs.

Rounding out Maladies are a couple of lovelorn ballads reminiscent of Waits' early years: "Time" and "Johnsburg, Illinois." Cleverly placed behind "Shoreleave" and "Singapore," "Johnsburg, Illinois," completes an ad hoc trilogy as the subject threads from one song to the next.

Waits' albums should be heard in their entirety to fully appreciate them, but Beautiful Maladies tackles the job of making these disparate songs fit. Keep in mind, though, that this is a small sample; what you're missing is just as good.

-- Eric McNeill

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John Floyd
Eric McNeill

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