Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Raising expectations: A rundown of the coming album by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

This piece originally appears in Issue 19 of the magazine Tight But Loose, published in January 2008. It is reproduced here with the permission of TBL publisher Dave Lewis. For TBL subscription information, visit www.TBLweb.com.

In yet another turn of direction, Robert Plant's collaboration with Alison Krauss has exceeded all expectations and garnered some of the best reviews of his career.

Raising Sand, a collection of obscure covers mostly in the folk tradition, pairs Robert Plant with one of the finest female voices of the bluegrass world. For people who have been following the twists and turns of Plant's long and varied career, it's really no immense surprise that his collaboration with Alison Krauss has taken place. Frankly, it's more of a surprise that this sequence of events didn't play out sooner.

Plant gave us a hint of his appreciation for Krauss in an interview for Classic Rock magazine published in January 2004. When speaking about his wide-ranging musical interests, he pondered, "You know, are people just stuck in particular channels; can somebody who likes Jane's Addiction really get into Alison Krauss? I don’t know. But as far as I can see, music is music." Toward the end of 2004, the next drop of a hint was presented when Plant and Krauss teamed up to harmonize on some songs at a tribute concert in Cleveland honoring Leadbelly.

From this meeting came the inspiration for further cooperation between the two singers. Recorded in 2006, Raising Sand demonstrates just how fruitful their partnership is: On several tracks, the singers' voices meld as if they were glued together. This makes it all the more appropriate the fact that one of the songs fades out with Plant and Krauss combining to echo a refrain of "Come on and stick with me, baby/ Come on and stick with me, baby." Truly, their voices have found a way to do just that, to Plant's apparent delight.

"I'd always liked harmony singing," he said in a promotional video for Rounder Records, "but I'd never been a part of anything in any band that ever went anywhere near harmony work, you know? You may put a third on as a part of the chorus or something back in the day, but not much." The album opens with two songs sung entirely in harmony, minus a few ad libs here and there.

As far as cover tunes go, this album resembles Plant's 2002 Dreamland album in that the songs chosen may not be instantly recognizable to any one listener. The one person who best knew all the songs in this case is the person who picked them out, T Bone Burnett. The product of a Texas upbringing, the Grammy Award-winning producer decided upon a fair amount of material dating back to the 1960s alongside some more recent picks.

The first single from the album, "Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)," was also a single over 40 years ago. Released in 1964 by the songwriting team of Phil and Don Everly, "Gone, Gone, Gone" marked the last time the Everly Brothers cracked the Top 40 singles charts in the 1960s. The original version of this upbeat number featured a bouncy, danceable rhythm backing the duo's perfect harmony. The same is true with the version on Raising Sand. Its crisp recording highlights the upright bass of Dennis Crouch so that each pluck of a string can be plainly discerned. Krauss and Plant double up on a synchronized "ahhh" that recalls the layered vocals on the former Led Zeppelin singer's 1985 track "Pink and Black." The result is a fine production that is likely to grab some airplay and generate interest in the collection. (It is interesting to note that Fairport Convention, a group Plant admired particularly for its work in the late 1960s, recorded a take of the song for the BBC during that period, as contained on Fairport's Live at the BBC release from earlier this year.)

"Stick With Me Baby" is another inclusion from the Everly Brothers' songbook. It was written by Mel Tillis and released as the B-side to the Everly Brothers’ 1961 single, "Temptation." While the original has a driving bossa nova beat, the track by Plant and Krauss is sweet and understated, highlighting that two-part harmony and a phased tremolo guitar, both of which become trademarks throughout much of the album.

The album turns twice to songs penned by Gene Clark, the underappreciated initial lead singer for the Byrds. His originals are both available on his career-spanning double album Flying High. The slowest track on Raising Sand, "Polly Come Home" unfolds over five minutes with Plant delivering a hushed lead vocal over a very simple 6/8 rhythm care of drummer Jay Bellerose. Krauss's lead vocal on "Through the Morning, Through the Night" makes it probably the prettiest song on the album.

"Fortune Teller" is a witty narrative written by New Orleans luminary Allen Toussaint (under the pseudonym Naomi Neville) that was covered by an array of bands in the 1960s including the Rolling Stones, and it's even on the Who's seminal Live at Leeds. On this funky version that closes with the album's longest and best guitar solo, Plant conveys the song with a sense of humor. He is particularly droll in his recitation of the piece's clever punch line. Another high point comes before the last verse, with Krauss singing some backup parts over an otherwise instrumental break with handclaps that beg the listener to shout, "Yallah!"

At least one song, "Rich Woman," precedes the 1960s by a good five years, originally released by Li'l Millet and His Creoles on a single in November 1955. It's included on the genre-spanning box set Creole Kings of New Orleans. On Raising Sand, "Rich Woman" is the opening track, presenting the phased guitar sound that is a Raising Sand staple. It's a fine example of how the boy from West Bromwich can blend with the Illinois girl.

Yet another older piece of source material, "Nothin'," was first released in 1971 as the dark closing number on Townes Van Zandt's album Delta Momma Blues. The version here contains banjo and fiddle, but the sound is not exclusively acoustic; it is amplified and intensified by a heavily distorted electric guitar. The parts of the song with vocals come exclusively from Plant, who sings in a relaxed, reserved mood.

Krauss cannot be heard singing at all on that song, balancing her solo effort on the subsequent track, "Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson." It is a funky song taken from the B-side of Little Milton's 1974 single on the Stax label, "Let Me Back In." The cover version by Krauss subtracts from the equation the horns heard on Little Milton's original but adds in some country-inflected guitar. The track also provides the best glimpse of this singer's strong upper range.

"Killing the Blues," the second track on Raising Sand, has its roots with the Rounder label. It was originally released in 1974 on the compilation Woodstock Mountains: Music from Mud Acres. On that version, it is performed by its songwriter, Roly Salley, along with Pat Alger, Lee Berg, Jim Rooney, Artie Traum and Happy Traum. The song has also been covered by John Prine (on 1979's Pink Cadillac) and Shawn Colvin (on 1994's Cover Girl). Krauss and Plant's interpretation is faithful to the original, offering a smooth and delicate take on it, showcasing some gently gliding pedal steel guitar.

In selecting the songs for the album, Burnett also nods to a few more recent composers. Notably, a song by his former wife, the dashing singer Sam Phillips, makes its recorded debut on Raising Sand. The despondent lyrics of her "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" reference Sister Rosetta Thorpe, an Arkansas-born blues-gospel singer whose professional career enjoyed most of her success in the 1940s. The song's opening passage cleverly integrates the lyric from Tharpe's 1944 song "Strange Things Happening Every Day," as heard on the second volume of her Complete Recorded Works.

Also explored on the album is "Trampled Rose," a song from the 2004 album Real Gone by Tom Waits, which was a Billboard No. 1 independent album and also reached No. 28 on the Billboard 200. On "Trampled Rose," Marc Ribot appears on Dobro; fittingly, he was also on the Waits recording, playing banjo. Here, the arrangement is fleshed out by bass, hammer dulcimer, two kinds of percussion, and a beautiful vocal from Krauss. It and "Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson" are the only songs that do not include Plant.

The preceding song on the album is the only one either Krauss or Plant wrote. "Please Read the Letter" dates back to Plant's recording stint with Jimmy Page 10 years ago. It is a band composition between the two ex-Led Zeppelin members along with Charlie Jones and Michael Lee, originally released on the 1998 Page/Plant album Walking into Clarksdale. Clocking in at just under six minutes, this new, heartfelt version is prodding but steady. It features acoustic and electric guitars enhancing both singers' graceful reading of the lyrics, plus a fine fiddle solo at the end of the song. It is probably what Plant intended for the song all along.

The album's closing song, "Your Long Journey," is another one that can be heard on the Music from Mud Acres compilation. In that version, it is performed by Lee Berg and Rory Block. However, the original version of this country standard goes back to the early 1960s, performed by the husband-and-wife team of Doc Watson and Rosa Lee Watson. The lyrics express the emotions one feels at the imminent passing of a loved one. Placed as the closing number of Raising Sand, it is a farewell number but hopefully not the permanent kind of farewell described in the song. Plant and Krauss are joined by multi-instrumentalist Mike Seeger, who sits in on the autoharp to accompany them on this succulent wrap-up of the anthology. (It is similar in feel to the version of "Down to the River to Pray" by John Paul Jones on layered electric mandolin, as heard on his 2002 album, The Thunderthief.)

The careers of both Plant and Krauss have been long journeys meandering across genres. In a promotional biography of the bluegrass star, Rounder Records follows up a litany of her many awards with the following text:
"More impressive, however, than any of these accolades has been Krauss's unwavering commitment to being an independent-label artist who has succeeded far beyond the scope of many major-label artists. She has been able to circulate freely within pop, mainstream country, and roots music circles, creating impeccably produced records that appeal to an equally wide-ranging and inquisitive audience. Krauss has continued doing things the old-fashioned way: following her heart and whatever path the music takes her down."
A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection, a compilation album released just in April captures Krauss's best non-album work to date. This includes her a cappella version of "Down to the River to Pray" as heard on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. It's a collection of her rarities, but a more representative compilation of material by Krauss can be found on the DVD Alison Krauss & Union Station Live, released in 2003.

This isn't a psychedelic album, and it's not a tribute to any one particular singer or songwriter or genre. It's also not a rehash of anything Led Zeppelin ever did. It's really a unique set that's little like what either Plant or Krauss has ever provided before. What sets it apart is that it represents exactly what any two wonderful singers should sound like together. Despite their disparate backgrounds, they combine to portray a unified front, one that is velvety and satisfying in its effortlessness.

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