Robert Johnson: Complete Tracks - JazzWax

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April 26, 2011


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Kent England

You have your valid reasons, but I really resent being condescendingly told why I should buy the same music yet again, because some engineer spent hours fiddling with it. (And I don't care if his first name isn't Rudy.) I'll stick with my old CDs and spend my money on new recordings from kids like Galactic.

It used to be "buy this new CD with 18 tracks you already have so's you can get this unreleased alternate take". Since that got old it's now "buy this new CD that you already have because some sound engineer whose name you know put the old tapes on and cut another CD just like the last one".

Ed Leimbacher

Unlike Mr. England I do not object to attempts at improving sound, but whether this one is miraculous or not is probably less important to Sony than that "Centennial" tag, a perfect excuse to issue a fancy multi-CD set. The art pieces seem pretty pathetic and then there's the matter of Mr. LaVere, whose copyright activities have angered many and delayed projects before.

I used to care a great deal about all this because I wrote a screenplay about Johnson back in 1968-69. After close to three decades of its circulation in Hollywood, drawing praise but no production, I kenneled that Hellhound... until a couple of years ago when I unleashed it on the Internet, to be read or even swiped by anyone curious enough to track it down, at --listen, can't you hear the wind howl?


The new set is worthwhile for the sound quality. I compared apples-to-apples and concluded the new transfers are by far better than past attempts. I used "Preachin' Blues" because the notes say that the metal parts for this song still exist and I worked under the assumption that they were used for all transfers. I compared the versions on the 1990 2CD set, the 1998 CD repackaging of "King of the Delta Blues Singers" and the 1970's LP of "King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2". First of all, it was immediately noticeable how different all the transfers sound. Very different aesthetics and technology have been applied each time. Second, to my ears, it was abundantly clear that this time they got it as close to sitting in the session with RJ as you're likely to get from grooved disks recorded in the 1930's. Marc's comments above about hearing the strings and the sound of the room are correct, and these sounds are not heard above the noise or below the over-aggressive "noise reduction" in prior releases.

Regarding the comment about "just another ripoff reissue of the same stuff," I the 4-CD version is a good deal because of all the great-sounding issues of some obscure and rare blues and other music. The "from the Victor Vaults" CD has a bunch of great stuff, and these tunes never sounded this good. And the "made on the same day" CD is a really neat idea, it puts Johnson's sessions in context to what else was going on in the same place and time, musically.

In my opinion, the sound quality of the RJ recordings is so much better than the 1990 set that I'd get it just to hear all the music and atmosphere I was missing. But to each their own.

-- Tom

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of a Song" (Grove) and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax is a two-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Association's best blog award.

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