2007 / Music

Review: Plant-Krauss Duet Helps Singer Escape Zeppelin’s Shadow

Classic Rock’s ‘Golden God’ Releases Solo Disc On Eve Of Zep Reunion

When Robert Plant confidently struts across the stage of a London stadium in a few short weeks with the reformed Led Zeppelin, it won’t just be 30 years of rock ‘n’ roll legends and a near-perfect discography that he’ll be potentially trampling underfoot. The stakes are a bit higher than that.

Photo: Rounder Records

Photo: Rounder Records

Rather, Plant could undermine his long-sought artistic freedom from Zeppelin just at the instant when he had a collection of songs compelling enough to temporarily eclipse the all-consuming Zeppelin legacy. With assistance of bluegrass starlet Alison Krauss, Plant has just released his best post-Zep record. It’s a disc so richly steeped in American roots music that it could free him of the indignity of being known as the “former singer for Led Zeppelin” for the near term. Or, at least, it could spare him from having to sing “Whole Lotta Love” during his next tour.

“Raising Sand” is truly the culmination of years of musical wandering for Plant. The fact that he was never a songwriting heavyweight (most of Zeppelin’s best cuts were collaborations) didn’t deter Plant from experimenting on his handful of solo albums with genres that were often just motifs or background influences in his old band’s muscular-rock meatgrinder. Plant’s wailing contemporary, Ozzy Osbourne, makes himself even more a heavy-metal buffoon as he tries to scare younger metal fans with new horror-movie lyrics and Zakk Wylde’s bone-crushing riffs. Plant, however, has stubbornly chartered a course that eluded the electric-blues bluster and stadium rock that he and Zeppelin specialized in.

But whether it was goofing off old-school R&B with the Honeydrippers in the early ’80s, or loyally re-creating ’60s psychedelic-folk in recent years with his latest backing band, Strange Sensation, Plant could consistently count on similar results: a mediocre album that would sell only among Zeppelin loyalists.

“Raising Sand” changes all that. Plant has finally found a form — roots music — that showcases the true breadth of his vocal talents, whether its country, bluegrass, folk, gospel or blues. In addition, he has a group of seasoned accompanists who don’t pale in comparison to the classic-rock giants that Plant used to share the stage with. In fact, some of them are perceived as giants in their field.

Chief among Plant’s new assets is his singing partner, Krauss. The unlikely pairing of the ’70s rock shrieker and youthful, fiddle-playing crooner might seem like odd bedfellows before you click the play button. But after you listen, it’s hard to imagine them without each other. In fact, Plant hasn’t had such a lovely sounding board since Jimmy Page’s guitar. Their singing isn’t so much two voices harmonizing, but a carefully choreographed slow dance. Both unique voices slide against each other, sometimes Plant leading, other times with Krauss in the foreground. It’s also a more sensual pairing than when Plant shared the mic with Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny on Zeppelin’s “The Battle Of Evermore.”

Case in point is “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” which has Krauss gracefully leading us through a maze-like melody populated by banjo, fiddle and thudding bass drum. Plant, meanwhile, hovers throughout, occasionally offering a wordless counter melody that slithers next to the slow spiral of her singing. Their union becomes less seductive and more sympathetic during “Through The Morning, Through The Night,” which is a classic country music sob story. Krauss earnestly sings of her heartbreak, and while we’ve heard something like this before, the yearning in her voice, Plant’s smooth harmonizing and the elegance of the requisite steel guitar succeed in tugging all the right strings.

Perhaps even more crucial to the success of “Raising Sands” than Krauss are the contributions of someone whose name appears on the back of the disc: producer T-Bone Burnett. The man who masterminded the roots music-revering “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack (along with the soundtracks for most other Cohen brothers’ films), Burnett has a track record of producing seminal roots-rock albums and is well-educated in the music’s nuisances. He proved to be adept at cloaking these records in the appropriate level of authenticity and yet structuring the songs so as to meet the demands of fickle pop tastes.

As such, Burnett is at the top on the list of suspects for guiding Plant and Krauss to select material penned by underrated songwriting craftsmen like Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits, ex-Byrds singer Gene Clark, Doc Watson and the Everly Brothers. (Considering Zeppelin’s checkered history of co-opting old folk and blues chestnuts, every songwriter was properly credited.) We can also credit Burnett for designing the atmosphere for this reverb-rich, hillbilly music romp. He assembled a top-notch group of session musicians featuring bluegrass multi-instrumentalist (and fellow “O Brother” soundtrack alumnus) Norman Blake and onetime Tom Waits sideman Marc Ribot. The hired hands all perform expertly, adding inventive embellishments to the melodies, but also respectful students to these closely regulated genres so that they don’t overplay.

Plant himself takes a siesta during “Trampled Rose,” letting Krauss shine solo on this Waits-written classic. Her breathy voice sounds like a siren call harkening listeners to get caught up in this bewildering love saga. Krauss gives the song a palatability that Waits typically skews on his material, but she and Burnett maintain a Waits-ian, “Mule Varations” feel with the track’s odd, polyrhythmic percussion and spooked-out sonic scenery.

As the Waits cover belies, “Raising Sand” also has a playful side that provides the necessary relief to Plant and Krauss’ ultra-serious warbling. “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson” is a Krauss-dominated uptempo number that almost has a rockabilly flair, but is much funkier than any Sun Records cut. The track culminates with a scorching electric guitar solo by Ribot. Plant takes the spotlight for the voodoo blues of “Fortune Teller.” While the song clearly builds on the story song format perfected by Plant’s Delta blues and early rock ‘n’ roll heroes, it’s alluring melody papers over its most obvious influences or subtly complicated arrangement. As Plant details his courtship with a woman who can see into his future, he carefully sings the line like he’s telling a joke because he already knows what’s happening, too. Krauss, meanwhile, appears only in the background, again as a siren hypnotizing listeners into this bewildering and enchanting tale.

Besides utilizing old country and folk standards as starting points, the Plant/Krauss/Burnett troika even reimagines “Please Read the Letter,” a cut from “Walking Into Clarksdale,” Plant’s ’90s reunion album with Page. The song is thoroughly clipped of its near-Zeppelin qualities and the trio has uncovered a better song. It’s one that has a deeper and more varied playground for the musicians to occupy and a more powerful hook built off Plant and Krauss’ vocal harmonies. In fact, the new arrangement is so wonderful that this track should be the first single for this album or even “Clarksdale.”

They build on the Zeppelin template again with “Your Long Journey,” which is a mandolin-filled mountain ballad that would have been a standout on “Led Zeppelin III.” Arranged like the best cuts on the “O Brother” soundtrack with Plant and Krauss singing in unison, the song has a slightly religious tone that serves as a fitting homily to this reverent excursion through this celebratory homage to Americana. Like the album itself, the song underlined the emotional power and depth inherent in this music as well as highlighting how brilliantly Plant, Krauss and Burnett performed as ambassadors to this culture.

Why then, Plant chose at the moment of his greatest solo triumph to get the old gang together again is puzzling. But perhaps he was thinking of the headlines that a reunited Zeppelin would get and how that kind of blinding spotlight would also engulf “Raising Sand” as well. Maybe he was again playing the role of ambassador, leading a potential skeptical audience to discover music that many might overlook.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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