Wild Mercury Sound

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss' "Raising Sand"

John Mulvey

There's a lot of static in the ether, as you may have detected, about the likelihood of a Led Zeppelin reunion sometime this autumn. That'd be nice, of course. But as I was listening to the new Robert Plant album for the first time this morning, it struck me: why would he bother going back there, when he's making records as good as this right now?

At the moment we're playing a very handy bit of krautrock by Arp, but as I write I'm going to put the Plant album on again. . . OK, here we go. Here's "Rich Woman": heavy freight train rhythm section, a glassy, twanging guitar line that I think is the work of Marc Ribot, and Plant and Alison Krauss locked together in a very discreet, empathetic harmony. Occasional drum explosions. An atmosphere of amiable menace. I like it a lot.

Some details, I guess. This is "Raising Sand", and it's not exactly a Plant solo album. Instead, Krauss gets equal billing on these 13 cover versions, produced by the estimable T Bone Burnett. One of the many engaging things about Plant these past few years is the vivid public enthusiasm he clearly has for music - much more so than most of his peers (not least Jimmy Page). But while his last three, hit-and-miss solo albums have been heavy on the desert blues and West Coast psych, "Raising Sand" is a very stylish excursion into American roots music; a place where the distinctions between folk, blues, country and such become blurred.

Plant mainly keeps his vocals on a leash (I think it's "Fortune Teller" where he kicks off, but I'll check when I get there). Krauss, meanwhile, is a terrific foil, and it's nice to hear her voice mingle so gracefully with Plant's, in a blend that's a world away from some of her own pillowy, multi-tracked hygienisations of bluegrass.

We’re on to their version of Gene Clark’s “Polly Come Home” now, which seemed to be the outstanding track on first listen, and which our Reviews Ed sagely pointed out as sounding uncannily like Low. Burnett has placed acres of empty space in the mix, leaving the spare guitar, bass and solemn drum strikes reverberating beneath Plant and a notably ethereal Krauss. I have my headphones on, and I can pick up a lot of hovering violin (played by Krauss herself, maybe?) buried deep in the mix, which adds to the generally spooked atmosphere.

The only Plant song on “Raising Sand” is “Please Read The Letter”, salvaged from the Page/Plant album, “Walking Into Clarksdale”. Admittedly I haven’t played that one since it came out, so I’m guessing that this version is not much like the original. Even in these subtle environs, though, you can spot the continuity between Plant’s work, that kind of righteous, faintly indignant stomp which underpins so many of his tunes. As Krauss steps up with her fiddle again, Plant lets out a few disconsolate “Ows!”, and there’s a delicious sense of tension, of the great man struggling desperately not to go off into a traditional, hair-tossing number. Curiously, the hard-fought discretion is more exhilarating than, I think, if he’d succumbed to the full ejaculatory operatics.

Krauss’ solo take on “Trampled Rose” is superb, too, at once precise and murky, a sort of theatrical southern gothic. This music is too considered, too staged, to be entirely satisfying for the sort of dunce who gets hung up about bogus notions of “authenticity”, I suspect – though parsing authenticity in music is a fool’s game, at the best of times. But that doesn’t mean the way Plant and Krauss inhabit these finely-selected songs is any less compelling.

What shines through – and I guess you could draw comparisons with the Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin sessions as an unlikely parallel – is an instinctual love of music and an understanding of how a good song works best. It’s not as good as a Led Zeppelin album, of course. But I can’t help thinking it’s a damn sight better than what would happen if Plant tried to make a Led Zep album in 2007. This is where his heart is now: what is and what should be, you could say, if you were desperate for an ending.


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