The Runners-Up is a monthly column, which we first tried in 2013, wherein we will analyze an album that isn’t the consensus first choice or most canonical title by a given artist, but is one worthy of more attention than it’s received to date. The album we’ll look at this month is…the Jimi Hendrix Experience‘s second studio album, Axis: Bold As Love.
Now, you may say to yourself, Jimi Hendrix is one of the most canonized and revered artists in rock history, and he only released three studio albums in his lifetime, so how could one of them qualify as “overlooked”? Especially since his catalog has never gone out of print since his death in 1970, and has in fact become a towering edifice of outtakes, half-formed jams, every live gig that was recorded in any kind of fidelity…you get the idea. Well, of those three studio albums, Axis — released only seven months after the Experience’s debut and created under chaotic, on-the-fly circumstances — is the clear stepchild. Although some songs have retroactively become Hendrix classics (“Little Wing” most of all), only “Up From the Skies” was released as a single, and it went nowhere, landing at #82 on the Billboard charts in February 1968.
The album opens with a skit. An interviewer (bassist Noel Redding) asks “Mr. Paul Caruso” (Hendrix) about UFOs, to which he offers the one-sentence reply “you can’t believe everything you see and hear” before waves of guitar noise swirl around the stereo field. The first proper song, “Up From the Skies,” is surprisingly mellow and poppy, with jazz-adjacent brushed drums from Mitch Mitchell and rumbling bass from Redding. This sets the tone for much of the record. Crunching hard rock is just one element of the music on Axis, and guitar frenzy is in relatively short supply; these are mostly short, verse-chorus tunes, performed in a straightforward fashion, a few panning effects and backward solos aside. Reading stories of the band requiring nearly two dozen takes of a song as basic as “She’s So Fine” (written and sung by Redding) are baffling. The idea that it might take them nearly 30 tries to nail “Little Wing” is equally hard to understand.
When the band does crank it up, they reach some ecstatic peaks. “Spanish Castle Magic,” which hits right after “Up From the Skies,” is a stomping, shouting explosion, the relative laid-back coolness of Hendrix’s vocal (on the verses, anyway) contrasting with the multiple layers of shredding, screaming guitar and Mitchell’s avalanche of drums. It seems like an obvious single when heard in 2021, but in fact it was ahead of its time. Hendrix was working in a hard rock style that other bands wouldn’t pick up until 1969.
“Ain’t No Telling” is another surprise; at 1:48, it might be the shortest song in his catalog, and its relatively complex structure — a hard-charging R&B riff with call-and-response male vocals recalling soul music, broken up by repeated changes to the main riff, all flying by at a manic tempo — almost seems to prefigure the Black punk rock of Death and the Bad Brains. “If 6 Was 9,” the longest track on Axis at 5:35, runs through a range of moods and styles as well, propelled by a choppy, stomping riff but later diverging into a psychedelic bridge and making room for a surprisingly jazzy (for a rock album in 1967) drum solo, as well as some fairly wild flutes as the piece winds down.
The album’s second side is somewhat less adventurous than the first. Three of its six tracks are relatively conventional rock songs, including “She’s So Fine,” the aforementioned bone thrown to Noel Redding. The best and most interesting of the three is “Little Miss Lover,” built on a jackhammer breakbeat that George Clinton must have been listening to, as it sounds a lot like early Funkadelic. But “One Rainy Wish” is an attempt at something he’d pull off much better on Electric Ladyland the next year, and “Castles Made of Sand” and “Bold as Love” are almost the same song, at least until the latter dives off the edge into a soaring, psychedelically panned guitar solo to close the album.
Hendrix’s debut, Are You Experienced, was a megaton explosion within the context of 1960s rock. It’s not surprising that the follow-up, especially since it was released only seven months later (AYE in May 1967, Axis in December), gets less attention. And honestly, if you’re ranking them, it is the weakest of Hendrix’s three studio albums. But its peaks still put it well above the work of many if not all of his peers, and as such it deserves more attention than it gets. No one interested in his music should skip past it or view it as a mere stepping stone to Electric Ladyland.
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