Posthumous reconstructions of unfinished works are inherently dangerous, principally because even the most capable scholar or producer can only make, at best, an educated guess as to how the work in question would have been completed. Indeed, in dealing with some such pieces, you're sometimes lucky to get the work of the artist claimed (the Mozart Symphony No. 37 is a case in point -- it doesn't exist; the piece once labeled Symphony No. 37 and attributed to Mozart is now known to have been authored by Michael Haydn); and while there's no question that the songs on this CD were recorded by Jimi Hendrix, even the people who worked on the sides with him can't say which songs would have ended up on the finished version of First Rays of the New Rising Sun (assuming that he even ended up using that title for the album), or what embellishments he would have added to any of them in the course of completing them, or even if he might not have totally reconsidered such matters as tempo and approach to any of them. In the end, First Rays of the New Rising Sun is a little like any of the various "performing editions" of Gustav Mahler's never-completed Symphony No. 10, in that what's here is impressive, but may have little to do with what would finally have been heard by the public, had the artist lived to finish it -- we don't know if Mahler would have scored a particular passage for horns or strings, or Hendrix would have put another, different lead guitar part, or a second (or third) guitar part on to any of these songs, or added choruses, or re-thought his vocal performance? Hendrix had gone so long between albums, seemingly adrift stylistically at various times, that there's no telling exactly what direction he was finally going to end up working toward. All of that said, this is a superb album, and a worthy if very different, earthier successor to Electric Ladyland's psychedelic excursions -- the later tracks, ironically enough, cut at that album's long promised and long-delayed studio namesake -- and also show him working in some genuinely new directions. For starters, Hendrix's voice emerges here as a genuinely powerful instrument in its own right -- his voice was never as exposed in the mix of his songs as it is here; partly this is because Hendrix and engineer Eddie Kramer never finished embellishing the songs, or completed the final mixes. But whatever the reasons, the change is refreshing -- Hendrix's voice is not only powerful and expressive throughout, but a more melodic instrument than it seemed on his earlier releases; indeed, hearing these sides is a bit like listening to those middle-years Muddy Waters recordings when Chess Records had the Chicago blues legend abandon his guitar playing in favor of concentrating on his singing; the results might not be what all fans expected, but it sure sounds good, because it turns out that Hendrix had an expressive voice and was also moving his music into new areas that were stimulating him. A lot of the material here shows Hendrix, for the first time, moving his songs specifically into a black music idiom, embracing R&B and funk elements in his singing, playing, and overall sound; some of it could qualify as Hendrix's extension of his years playing with the Isley Brothers. Songs here such as "Freedom," "Izabella," "Angel," and "Dolly Dagger" show him finally acknowledging that musical world that he had largely by-passed, and the closer, "Belly Button Window," is one of his most successful traditional bluesy outings. The psychedelic workouts are more jam-like and experimental, and the ballads are prettier and even more dreamlike in their background soundscapes. "Astro Man" also captures a light moment for the artist, as he opens the guitar workout with a quote from the Mighty Mouse theme song, sotto voce beneath the guitar. And speaking of the guitar, despite the prominence of Hendrix's vocals on a lot of this album, the guitar playing is pretty much up to the standard that one would expect, if not necessarily the final versions of some of the songs. Most of the material on First Rays of the New Rising Sun surfaced among the various posthumous Hendrix LPs issued from the 1970s through the early 1990s, but a lot of it was tampered with, mostly in the form of posthumous overdubbed embellishments supervised by producer Alan Douglas -- all of that has been stripped off and the multi-track masters retrieved and restored. What he would have eventually come up with and released as his next musical statement is anyone's guess, but this gets you as close to that answer -- and that vision -- as you're ever likely to get. It is the best representation of where the songs were at the point that he died, and it's fully competitive, in terms of merits and surprises, with his trio of completed studio albums.
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AllMusic Review by Bruce Eder