Style: Folk Rock
Release Date: 19 Nov 2022
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It's been quite a while since Robert Plant teamed up with Alison Krauss for a surprising but highly successful collaboration. That was Raising Sand in 2007, released on roots label Rounder, and it did very well indeed for itself, debuting at #2 on the Billboard charts and taking home five Grammys, including Album of the Year. Now I don't usually pay any heed to the Grammys, but that's quite an achievement for a roots album. I doubt this will make a ripple because it's hardly surprising to see this collaboration in 2021, but it's still a really interesting release.
Of course, the focal point is always going to be the voices, two very different voices from different backgrounds that combine as if they were always meant to be together. This follow-up album kicks off with a wise duet, Quattro (World Drifts In), and the harmonies are heavenly. Other songs work differently, giving one voice the focus and bringing the other in to back it up and harmonise when it's needed. One reason that the collaboration works so well is that so few listeners were aware of both voices when they came in, so there was usually an element of discovery.
Rock audiences, of course, knew Robert Plant well. His influence is stamped on pretty much every rock song released in the last half century. So much of what the genre does is because he did it in Led Zeppelin and his voice only gets richer. He was 73 years old when this album came out and he's not only still at the top of his game but he keeps elevating the top of his game. I have no idea how many people expected him over Jimmy Page to be the most inventive member of Zep over coming decades, but I don't think there's even a debate as to that any more. Plant is always interesting. I think his peak here is the wavery bridges on Go Your Way but he's amazing throughout.
Americana audiences may know Plant peripherally but they know Alison Krauss well, because she's a legend in roots music, not only for her voice but for her fiddle work, which is majestic. Check out a song like You Led Me to the Wrong, which features Plant's voice but Krauss's fiddle in dark duet and see just how much she brings to the table. Other songs feature her as the lead voice and it's a thing of beauty. Her first solo jaunt here is The Price of Love, an old Everly Brothers song, and she soars and soothes and commands. She's amazing throughout too.
What surprised me most, even though it really shouldn't, is how solid this is apart from the voices. It's so easy to see country music especially as being all about the singer, and overtly country songs here like Going Where the Lonely Go are beautiful from a vocal standpoint, but the musicians you so rarely see on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry are among the best in the world and the line-up behind Plant and Krauss here is impeccable, whatever their backgrounds.
I know a few of them. T Bone Burnett is older than Plant and has been there, done that forever. It used to be that he was best known for playing guitar behind Bob Dylan but film soundtracks like O Brother, Where Art Thou? surpassed that. He makes things happen and he has the musical chops to back up whatever that might be. Bill Frisell is one of the best unknown guitarists in the world (if you think about the general public). I've adored his work since hearing the amazing cover of Going Going Gone on Rubáiyát, the Elektra Records 40th anniversary covers album. He can play anything and he can likely play it better than anyone else. Mark Ribot is always fascinating too, even when not backing Tom Waits or John Zorn. Nobody finds grooves like Ribot.
And there are plenty of grooves here. Plant does that in his sleep too, but these grooves tend not to be the rhythmic grooves he loves so much. They're certainly here, on songs like Somebody Was Watching Over Me, but mostly they're Ribot/Frisell sort of grooves, where the musicians manage to pull a tone out of their instruments that we haven't quite heard before, that conjures up mood from the very first note and sets the stage in no uncertain way for the singers to shine. They're using different guitars, different drum sticks, different techniques.
In fact, the grooves are so important here that which ones connect with you the most may shape a list of your favourite songs. For me, that's coalesced over multiple listens to pieces as different as Can't Let Go and Last Kind Words Blues. The former combines surf guitar with an Elvis swing and a sassy backing. It's a lively but deliciously subdued piece with joyous drums from Jay Bellerose. The latter is plaintive, stripped down acoustic blues that sears the soul. The guitar alone is enough to make you weep, even before the harmonies show up to destroy you utterly.
I'm sure Burnett had plenty to do with the song choices and arrangements. Not everything here is a deep cut, given that The Price of Love topped the British charts in 1965, not that it sounded like this then, but most are. Last Kind Words Blues, for instance, is a Geeshie Wiley song, a mysterious female country blues singer who put out three singles in 1930. I know some of the songwriters, like Merle Haggard, Allen Toussaint and Bert Jansch, but I need to look up others, like Ola Belle Reed, Randy Weeks and Bobby Moore and the Rhythm Aces. This is discovery for me and entertainment both, just like anything else with Burnett's name on it.