Various Artists

Judgement Day: Songs of Robert Johnson

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A brilliant assimilator, Robert Johnson took stock community blues material and infused it with his own personality, and no doubt well aware that a big part of a performer's charisma was a little dose of mystery, layered his most striking songs with a vague and ominous melodrama, even appropriating the old myth of bartering away one's soul to the devil at a crossroads to attain riches in this world at the expense of the next one. This concept of remolding the country blues tradition to fit his own particular musical and cultural needs makes Johnson somewhat of a postmodernist, and it's fitting that he was essentially the end of the line for acoustic country blues, for he had honed the genre into a sharp and concise craft. After Johnson the blues became primarily both electric and urban, and although several of Johnson's songs ended up staples in the standard blues kit bag, his versions remain the definitive ones. This intriguing set of 21st century interpretations of Johnson songs doesn't change that, but the performers here at least try to stretch the boundaries a little bit, with understandably mixed results. Jeff Jacobs (who produced this collection) turns "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day" into a dirty electric blues and howling electronica hybrid that certainly brings out the nastiness at the center of Johnson's original, while Cathy Richardson restructures "Preachin' Blues" into a thoroughly contemporary song as remote from the original as a computer hard drive is from a steam locomotive's boiler. In most cases, though, Johnson's songs are simply amped up to sound big and huge, which is fine as far as it goes, but in the end just serves to show how effective Johnson's sparse, cut-to-the-very-bone approach really was in the first place. Truthfully, all it takes to bring Robert Johnson into the 21st century is to download one of his original songs. The hellhounds are still out there, and so are the crossroads.

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