Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Unexpected Pleasures

Robert Plant/Alison Krauss - Raising Sand

It’s difficult to admit it now, but one of my earliest infatuations as a teenager was with Led Zeppelin. Not so much the quasi-mystical nonsense of ‘Stairway To Heaven’, but rather the primal rush of ‘Communication Breakdown’ or the effortless and thoroughly peculiar melding of Eastern strings and pounding drums on ‘Kashmir’. Since those days, I’ve rather fallen out of love with their considerable legacy and can’t bring myself to care much about the imminent reunion gig, even if Dave Grohl does attempt to fill John Bonham’s enormous drum shoes. Foolishly, I opted to watch Page and Plant’s indulgent tedium over the Super Furry Animals at 1998’s Reading Festival, and much of Robert Plant’s solo work has left me rather cold. ‘Raising Sand’ therefore comes as a curious and entirely gratifying surprise.

It’s not a Plant solo album as such, but rather a collaboration with the extraordinarily popular bluegrass singer Alison Krauss, about whom I am usually very much agnostic. Her own music has tended to sound overly polite and sanitised, the songs often sounding forced rather than hard-lived. Yet her soft, somewhat vulnerable tones here provide a sterling foil for Plant, who is uncharacteristically restrained throughout. Indeed, it’s only on ‘Fortune Teller’ that he even comes close to resembling the sexualised urgency of his Zeppelin vocal performances. There’s only one Plant original here (‘Please Read The Letter’), and even that is cribbed from the Page/Plant album ‘Walking Into Clarksdale’. This is mainly a somewhat studied, but thoroughly easygoing foray into American roots music, neatly melding country, blues and soul into a delicately enchanting and hypnotic hybrid.

Sometimes the sound is comfortingly familiar, with swathes of pedal steel guitar and lightly brushed drums, but in places they veer into unusually eerie, gothic territory. ‘Polly Come Home’ doesn’t sound a million miles away from the harmony-directed minimalism of Low, although the slightly Irish lilt to the melody lends it an additional timeless quality. The superb opener ‘Rich Woman’ crackles and bristles with an oddly reserved energy, whilst Krauss handles the melodic line of ‘Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us’ with masterful subtlety.

The percussion throughout sounds particularly otherworldly and transcendent, perhaps slightly reminiscent of Malcolm Burn’s production work for Emmylou Harris on ‘Red Dirt Girl’ and ‘Stumble Into Grace’, particularly on the haunting take on Tom Waits’ ‘Trampled Rose’. The loose-limbed clatter that glues these songs together also prevents this from being too academic or reverential an exercise.

There’s a relaxed, consummate alchemy between Plant and Krauss that is thoroughly unexpected. Whilst it’s not quite as pure and original a partnership as that of Gram Parsons and Emmylou, it’s both respectful of that particular heritage and keen to develop it in unpredictable directions. The effortless grace of their harmony singing on ‘Stick With Me Baby’ is sublime.

What a shame therefore that Plant is undermining the promotion of this satisfying record by submitting to corporate pressures for a one-off Led Zeppelin reunion show. At least it looks unlikely to become a behemoth tour in the manner of this year’s other reunions (Genesis, The Police). I would rather focus on the quiet and intoxicating majesty of this beautiful record.

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