REVIEW: ROBERT JOHNSON “The Centennial Collection”

The Centennial Collection

Available on 2CD set and on iTunes, AmazonMP3 and eMusic
Rating: ★★★★★

By all accounts, I shouldn’t have to try to sell anyone on Robert Johnson. The man’s legend has loomed large since Columbia, under John Hammond Sr.’s auspices, assembled 16 of the long-dead Johnson’s recordings under the title King of the Delta Blues Singers. If you’re interested at all in early blues music, the roots of rock and roll, or early American music in general, you probably already have a copy of King of the Delta Blues Singers or the Complete Collection box set from 1990 (a surprise platinum-selling release – especially in the eyes of Columbia, who only expected to move ten or twenty thousand copies) in your collection. If not, any interest you may have had in the man’s music may have been slowed down by just one thing: “Ugh! Recordings from when they only made 78’s? There’ll be a fuckton of scratches. Important or not, five-star essential listening or not, I’m not listening to music under that bad of a sound source.”

Thankfully, technology has progressed to the point where a good sound engineer could take a scratchy 78, program the clicks and pops out of it, and make the recording sound as crystal clear as possible, as a late 90’s overdue CD edition of the first King of the Delta Blues Singers album proved in comparison to the Complete Collection box.

Of course, even Johnson devotees might whine, “Another reissue of the same bunch of tracks? Jesus Christ, Columbia, why don’t you just dig Robert’s body up and poison him to death again?” upon hearing of the release of The Centennial Collection. But that’s where technology comes into play again. Digital audio archiving has evolved so much that Centennial makes the previous edition of Johnson’s recordings sound less than optimum. I’ve heard Johnson’s recordings on everything from a cassette to the original box set to the 1998 CD edition of KOTDBS to a 180-gram LP. The fact is, these classic tracks are sounding as CLEAN as they have always deserved to be. There is a little high-end hiss that the sound engineers could not remove without compromising the original sonic fields that were recorded eighty years ago, but Johnson’s singing and guitar playing, his signature sound – are ringing clearer than ever. You couldn’t make these recordings sound any better unless you built a time machine, went back to the late 20’s and patched a MacBook Pro with ProTools into producer Don Law’s disc cutting machine.

And that, dear Virginia, is what this release of all of Johnson’s recordings is all about. If you can’t appreciate Robert Johnson’s music under these newly optimum conditions, then there’s something wrong.

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