Thursday, January 23, 2014

Battle of the Johnsons

It just seemed like time to dive into listening to Robert Johnson, one of the first generation of Delta blues singers.  I'm no expert in the field, but it doesn't take more than a casual listen to hear where Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton got a bunch of their guitar moves.  But where to start?  There's "The Complete Recordings," "The Complete Recordings (The Centennial Collection")," and "King of the Delta Blues Singers."  There are several other collections, but "King" is the album that fueled the 1960s British blues-rock invasion and is reputed to have a warm sound, while "Complete (Centennial)" has everything and is purportedly much cleaned-up over the earlier "Complete" collection, so this narrows it down to two.

So what's it gonna be?  Why not both.

I spent an hour this evening doing A/B listening – convenient having a CD player and Blu-Ray that'll play CDs wired in through the same sound system, just sync tracks up and roll – and the 2011 "Complete (Centennial)" double-disc set came out way on top.  All of the tracks were cleaner, you could really hear the vocals and especially the guitar work shining through on the Centennial re-mastering.  "King" did have a warmer sound, but there was a gut-rumble on many tracks, and frankly it was a pretty cheesy mix-down to make the guitar sound more natural on the bass end in a single-mic recording.  Ain't gonna happen, at least not happen right.  But what really pushes "King" off the top of the heap is the clipping in a lot of tracks.  It's so bad in this mastering that I was afraid "Terraplane Blues" would harm the speakers.  None of that clipping was anywhere in the Centennial version.  Sloppy engineering on "King" or amazing restoration on "Centennial"?  Doesn't matter, I know which disc is listenable.  But I might turn up the bass a little while listening to it.

To recap: don't get the current release of "King of the Delta Blues Singers," get the 2011 "Complete Recordings / Centennial Collection."  Then crank up the bass a little when you play it.  But above all, get these discs, 'cause this stuff is so good it has to be heard to be believed.

To re-recap: 


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