Music Reviews

posted: April 14, 2011

The Complete Original Masters The Complete Original Masters: The Centennial Collection

Sony Legacy 4CD + 12 45rpm 10" LP + DVD Box Set or 2 CD
The Complete Original Masters

No figure in the history of music, not even Hank Williams or Keith Richards, is more mythologized than Robert Johnson. As the bluesman heralded for advancing the Mississippi Delta tradition via his haunting, microtonal timbre and inimitable guitar techniques that provide the illusion of several instruments being played at once, Johnson’s vengeance-fueled death from poisoning at the age of 27—along with the foreboding atmosphere and lyrics of his songs, mysterious burial circumstances, tenebrous presence in few existing photographs, poorly chronicled transient existence, and alleged deal to sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads—have made him the source of many of rock’s most often-told and revered fables. Then there’s the groundbreaking music, and how little of it he was able to produce.

Like most early blues performers, Johnson never tasted fame during his career. His most successful single, “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” b/w “Terraplane Blues,” sold upwards of 5000 copies in the late 1930s. Yet economic, social, and logistical realities prevented him from becoming a legitimate star. He performed at juke joints and often traveled, setting up on street corners and joining with contemporaries at makeshift gigs. He did manage to attract the attention of legendary record executive and talent scout John Hammond, who planned on making Johnson an anchor of the now-famous 1939 From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. Johnson died months before the New York event occurred. Still, having advertised his presence, and taken with his sound, Hammond played two of the guitarist’s sides on a phonograph for the crowd.

If Johnson lacked for recognition and fortune in his brief lifetime, his posthumous luck compensated for previous sacrifices. Elmore James took Johnson’s “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” as his signature song in 1951, but it wasn’t until Hammond’s insistence to Columbia Records more than a decade later that the label release King of the Delta Blues Singers (a compilation of several Johnson singles) that the Mississippi native’s impact was felt on an international level. Most significantly, the release—as well as a subsequent volume—came at the time when folk, traditional jazz, and old-time blues were in favor with the mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic. Johnson’s fare soon reached the ears of young guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Richards, and Brian Jones. They studied his style in the same way a Rabbi memorizes the Torah. By 1966, everyone from the Rolling Stones to the Yardbirds worked Johnson’s material into their sets. The rest is academic.

Johnson’s legacy benefited again when, in 1990, at the start of the CD craze, The Complete Recordings presented his output in a two-disc box set. The Grammy-winning retrospective triggered another archival music trend that lasted for years and witnessed the likes of Bessie Smith, Bukka White, and dozens of other historically significant artists get their just due in the modern age courtesy of comprehensive packages replete with appreciative essays and revamped sound. The latter, along with the occasion of Johnson’s 100th birthday, is cause for the latest re-packaging of Johnson’s material.

Taking the form of two editions, The Centennial Collection is the most practical of the reissues, a double-disc set that essentially duplicates 1990’s The Complete Recordings with new essays and images. Its sibling, the $349.99 The Complete Original Masters: The Centennial Collection, comes in an extravagant box with four discs, DVD, hardbound book, and 12 10” 45RPM LPs that faithfully replicate Johnson’s original singles. Neither edition contains a note of previously unreleased music by Johnson; no more is known to exist. Each version features remastered sound that noticeably improves upon that which is on the original 1990 release. Anyone that doesn’t own this music should invest in the basic set; the same recommendation goes for listeners craving superior fidelity. Fans that rarely, if ever, revisit the sonically challenged sides won’t find anything new here.

But what of the $350 version, rounded out by a disc containing 24 songs by Victor recording artists circa 1928-1932 as well as another CD comprised of ten more tunes captured the same days as Johnson’s 1936 San Antonio and 1937 Dallas sessions. The Life & Music of Robert Johnson: Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl?, a 1997 documentary, is thrown in as a bonus. But the set’s inherent appeal lies in the vintage design and physical recreation of the old 78RPM sides; the packaging mirrors that of the landmark Charley Patton Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues 7CD box set released by John Fahey’s Revenant Records almost a decade ago. And this is where the motivation behind the set’s existence gets sticky.

While the Revenant set came without vinyl, it replicated each and every 78RPM sticker from Patton’s singles, included two books, boasted 128 pages of new writing about Patton, had three more discs of music, and exhaustively reproduced the 1929 advertisements for the bluesman’s singles. It also retailed for nearly $200 less than the new Johnson deluxe set and, most importantly, did for Patton in 2002 what The Complete Recordings did for Johnson in 1990: Exhaustively collected the artist’s music in one place for the first time, and provided long overdue exposure of Patton to new generations. There was an actual need for such a package, just as there was for Johnson, which was met in 1990. By no means inexpensive, given what’s included, how it’s presented, and fact that no duplicative repackaging is involved, the Revenant set isn’t overpriced, either.

But does pressing 12 10” 45RPM LPs with just one song on each side really cost that much or warrant a $350 sticker price? Keep in mind that Chicago-based archival label Numero Group is selling Syl Johnson’s superb Complete Mythology—a box loaded with 4CDs, 6LPs, and gorgeous 52-page booklet—for just $80. And given that, outside of four relatively concise essays, the Johnson box doesn’t showcase much in the way of writing, it isn’t like the liner note fees broke the bank.

Clearly, a $350 box set isn’t aimed at average music fans.  But one would hope that, with vinyl’s resurgence over the past five years, such a lavish set would at least be accessible to audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with Johnson’s music, and not dictate that they need to take out a loan to acquire a copy. Box sets are the last great vestige of physical media. Yet, in many ways, The Complete Original Masters: The Centennial Collection epitomizes what’s plagued the audiophile community for more than a decade. It offers little in terms of anything new. Its steep pricing essentially freezes out younger generations—folks that have largely driven analog’s comeback via purchases of new releases and reissues, and which religiously visit the remaining indie record stores. What’s more, some of the sales rhetoric surrounding The Complete Original Masters: The Centennial Collection smacks of the kind of smoking-jacket elitism and hypocritical mentality that not only wards off people from becoming interested in good sound and hi-fi gear, but makes them scoff. The chief offender in this instance? Acoustic Sounds, which claims it has an exclusive on the deluxe set’s distribution and sales.

“This is as close as almost all of us will get to what it would feel like—and sound like—to have a Robert Johnson original in our mitts. And guess what? With the set limited to 1,000 copies, these too are going to be as rare as hen’s teeth someday soon. So, please, do not be surprised or angry when these go out of print and we raise the price. Please accept this as a friendly warning.” The aforementioned quote (italics mine) is part of owner Chad Kassem’s sales pitch that’s currently up on the Acoustic Sounds Web site.

So, is The Complete Original Masters: The Centennial Collection about celebrating Johnson’s music and legacy? Seemingly, no. As Acoustic Sounds’ pitch transparently states, it appears that the set is mostly about money—and how much the Kansas-based company can fleece from customers by resorting to shallow tactics, i.e., the blatant threat of raising the price even higher in order to sell a limited commodity. Since when did selling new records become like hawking stocks and bonds? And how ironic is the practice in this particular case, given that part of the blues’ timeless appeal relates to its ability to speak for the working class and downtrodden. Don’t think that the average blues listener you’d encounter at Rosa’s Lounge in Chicago will be ponying up the equivalent of a monthly car payment for this set. For someone who professes such a love for the blues, Kassem doesn’t appear to understand the nature of its audience. But again, this set isn’t about the music as much as it’s about furthering a privileged mentality and using an important musician’s birthday as a guise to cash-in on fans’ desires.

This isn’t the first time Acoustic Sounds has shown how much it “cares” for music fans. The company pulled similar shenanigans in 2009. Realizing it had the last remaining copies of Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion on LP while the critically acclaimed LP was in the process getting re-pressed, Kassem and Co. doubled the price, acting like a 7-year-old kid that sticks his tongue out and chants “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah” as he eats the last lollipop in front of everyone in plain sight. Rather than use the Animal Collective situation as an opportunity to lure indie-rock lovers into perusing the audiophile world, Kassem teased them with unjustifiably high prices for a record that’s never even gone out of print. But remember, it’s all because of the company’s love of music and its customers. Right. Just like its overnight doubling and tripling of the prices on a majority of Classic Records’ back catalog last summer. Property taxes in Kansas must be higher than reported.

For anyone that truly cares about the high-end pastime transitioning into the future, and for listeners that seriously love music, the continued greed-driven race to learn just how much cash a niche audience will pay for a single title should be both disturbing and disconcerting. In the last five years, the audiophile press has repeatedly stressed the need to get younger generations involved. But, just like record and/or gear reviews in which a writer blathers on about how many albums he or she owns and brags by way of making readers feel inferior if they don’t own a certain almost-unobtainable pressing of a given title, extravagantly overpriced albums and hedge-fund sales tactics constitute the latest nose-in-the-air deterrents to investigating a leisure that already strikes a majority of the general public as a snobby, conservative old men’s club.

What’s more, such strategies remain ignorant of what remains the audio industry’s biggest problem: the fact that music is fun, enjoyable, engaging, and social. Not the stale equivalent of a Sotheby’s auction that’s open only to collectors and the well-heeled. Emphasizing exclusivity in a popular sphere, like the National Football League, is one thing; stressing and promoting it in a cottage industry already hamstrung by entitlement, restrictiveness, and closed-mindedness is a guaranteed way to prevent growth and fuel further disdain. And that’s a shame, because the joy of listening to music on a good stereo remains one of life’s great pleasures—and one, that to most people, is accessible, provided they are guided by the right channels and unbiased opinions. They’re not going to come to know it from retailers that, even before a product is released, admit that they will raise the cost to make it even more unobtainable, as if it was some piece of rare art that you should feel lucky to display in your living room. These are records, not ancient sculptures meant to be kept under glass.

“Acoustic Sounds Exclusive,” states the company’s listing for the Johnson set. Odd. Most dictionaries define “exclusive” as “restricted or limited to the person, group, or area concerned.” Funny, then, that there’s at least one other site vending the box. Acoustic Sounds also leaves unsaid plant pressing and plating information, strange given the $349 set is being advertised as an audiophile release, even though, barring a major miracle, no amount of technology or care is going to ever be able to elevate 75-year-old recordings made under less-than-superior conditions to audiophile quality. If you’re considering the purchase, consider this, to quote Acoustic Sounds, “a friendly warning.” And get the two-disc set and Patton box set instead.

–Jeff Dorgay