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Drowned in Sound: The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Drowned in Sound
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Are You Experienced?
by Kodi McKinney, DJ at U92

Time has made many great rock musicians misunderstood. Jim Morrison could be just as overwrought as he was electrifying, Eric Clapton didn't always used to be known for softer music, and Led Zeppelin often got through their extended jams by sheer determination rather than theoretical musical brilliance. This isn't to take away from anything those artists did, but possibly the most confusing legacy of all is that of Jimi Hendrix.
As the 40th anniversary of his band's landmark debut, Are You Experienced?, approaches, it seems bizarre that Hendrix only had one radio hit ("All Along the Watchtower," a Bob Dylan cover) in America before his death by sleeping-pill overdose in 1970. Maybe the rising shift to album-oriented rock was part of the reason why, as Hendrix and his work were still quite famous; a more likely explanation is that it took people time to wrap their heads around what he was doing. The amount of feedback and general cacophony in tunes such as "I Don't Live Today" and "Love or Confusion" made Hendrix's style difficult to digest, and the mostly instrumental "Third Stone from the Sun" is either an early example of atmospheric songwriting or obvious proof of drug use, depending on who you ask. But the most unusual thing about this album is how it sounds now, because it doesn't readily show its age.
Okay, some of the B-sides included on the reissue are obviously pushing 40; "May This Be Love" and "Hey Joe" (the latter Hendrix's breakout hit in Britain, also a cover) also sound like relics, albeit very good ones. Outside of them, Are You Experienced? is a pure, raw, revolutionary force. "Purple Haze" still has one of the most recognizable intros in all of rock, "Foxy Lady" still sounds ridiculously heavy, and "Fire" feels fresh enough that it pops up in commercials from time to time. Hendrix only plays his guitar conventionally on occasion throughout this album; in particular, his virtuosic solo on "Manic Depression" is clearly driven by feel and changes mood abruptly without becoming technically different. This was when Hendrix was still learning to write songs, and though the chaotic elements of his experimentation were later refined, they were never abandoned. Backwards-tracked guitar shows up in force on the title track, and even his still-developing vocals feature tongue clicks, audible throat-clearing, hand claps, and spoken word that somehow never take away from the music.
There are two major misconceptions about the Experience: their work was entirely drug-fueled (debunked by Hendrix's not-so-easily dismissed musical vision), and Jimi Hendrix was the only good musician in the trio. One listen to Mitch Mitchell's ridiculous drumming and Noel Redding's solid bass work proves otherwise. But all the hype around Hendrix holds true as well, for Are You Experienced? is still awe-inspiring. That is the most confusing part of his legacy; Hendrix really was as great as everyone thought, and that is truly rare.
Rating: 5 out of 5

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