LP Review: Robert Plant, The Sensational ‘Carry Fire’

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It was early my freshman year of high school when Led Zeppelin’s final album, ‘In Through The Out Door’ came out. Say what you want about Zeppelin’s swan song, it’s still amazing that they could put out that kind of quality record when the drummer was a raging alcoholic and the lead guitarist was strung-out on heroin. Ah, the 70s. ‘In Through The Out Door’ ushered in a different kind of vocal from Robert Plant. He wasn’t the shrieking banshee of ‘Zeppelin II’ any more, he was actually singing. Purportedly, Bonham and Page felt ‘In Through the Out Door’ was too “mellow” and were making plans for a more rocking follow-up when Bonham sadly passed away. For my part, I think “In The Evening” is a great rock tune. When your guitarist is sitting in a dark room with only a candle for light, comatose on heroin, it’s hard to put together an album that sounds like ‘Presence.’

At my high school, there was a group of guys who put up a sign-up sheet in the lunch room when Zeppelin announced their US tour. The guys had arranged to rent a bus that would take anybody who had the money up to Chicago, the nearest concert venue that Zeppelin was to play on that tour. Zeppelin rarely played Kansas City… there was a story, probably apocryphal that they’d been booed off staged early in their career in KC and they eschewed returning. I heard that same story about Bad Company, so who knows. Anyway, I can remember the dejected look on the faces of the guys who rented the bus when the news of Bonham’s sad passing was announced by our high school, lunchtime DJ. They had been so close to seeing Zeppelin, yet so far. I’m still surprised they let us play music in the lunchroom, my school was run by fascists.

And so, with a foolish, massive intake of vodka, Led Zeppelin, a pillar of 70s rock ‘n’ roll and well, rock ‘n’ roll in general, had toppled. I felt like I’d missed a great party… well, not missed, but only managed to get in on the tail end of the party, after all the pretty girls had left. I was, however, consoled in 1982 when Plant emerged with his first solo album. Those of us of a certain age still love ‘Pictures At Eleven.’ Plant’s singing on that record was more akin to what he did on ‘In Through The Out Door.’ Anybody looking for “The Immigrant Song” style of singing from Plant should have known back then, it wasn’t happening. “Burning Down One Side” is one of Plant’s best rock tunes… “How could I fall, without a show…” is a lyric that I only understand on a visceral, non-intellectual level, yet still love.

Thus began, for me, a life long devotion to the solo music of this brilliant artist. There is very little in Plant’s career that I could say I don’t like. I wasn’t crazy about his side-project The Honeydrippers but only his album ‘Shaken N Stirred’ could be described as missing the mark (way too much synthesizer). I love that Plant has gone through different phases of his career. He’s always searching, always testing his limits. He’s collaborated with different musicians at different times, always tinkering with his sound and approach. If that’s not the hallmark of an amazing artist, what is?

After a brief reunion with Jimmy Page for the Page-Plant albums and tours, both of which I saw (and was amazed by), Plant returned to his solo career with a covers album, ‘Dreamland.’ Despite it being mostly covers, I loved ‘Dreamland.’ It marked another evolution in Plant’s vocals. They started putting his voice right up front and augmenting it with more nontraditional, world-music kind of sounds. That sound carried through the exceptional album of originals, ‘Mighty Rearranger’ and led to the ‘Raising Sand’ project with Alison Krauss. ‘Raising Sand’ was a lot more successful than I think Plant was prepared for. If his reluctance to get Zeppelin back together is any indication, I think Plant shies away from the expectations to out-do his past… I doubt we see him do anything else with Krauss on a major scale ever again, much like Zeppelin.

Since the Plant-Krauss thing Plant simply returned to releasing great solo albums. ‘Band of Joy’ was produced by the lead guitarist of the Krauss album, Buddy Miller and boasted a  great harmony vocal from Patty Griffin. Band of Joy was the name of Plant’s first band with Bonham and the album by that name was Plant looking back to rootsy covers. I really thought that was a great, overlooked album. He followed that up with 2014’s ‘lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar,’ an exceptional album. ‘lullaby’ is the type of album this blog was founded on: a great, latter day album from a more mature artist that’s criminally overlooked. The first single from that record, “Rainbow” is one of my all-time favorite Plant tunes… although even I’ll admit, that’s a long list. The man has a golden voice.

I mention the album ‘lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar,’ because the sounds on that album really inform Plant’s stunning new record, ‘Carry Fire.’ His backing band, the Sensational Shape Shifters is back – Skin Tyson, Justin Adams on guitar, Dave Smith on drums, Billy Fuller on bass, John Baggot on keyboards and (the secret weapon in the band) Juldeh Camara on West African instruments. Plant and his band are pulling together American roots music, folk, traditional Welsh, African, rock and roll and “world-music” into a swampy gumbo of sound. As has been the case since ‘Dreamland’ Plants vocals are right up front in the mix, where they belong.

It’s easy to describe Plant’s music as a little mellower or quieter nowadays, but again, when you compare most music to say, ‘Physical Graffiti’ it’s probably going to sound mellow. The first single, “The May Queen” (reviewed earlier, Robert Plant: “The May Queen,” The New Song From The Upcoming ‘Carry Fire’) is wonderful up-beat acoustic number not dissimilar to “Gallows Pole.” It’s a perfect introduction to this music. The pace quickly picks up with the rocking guitar crunch of “New World…” You quickly realize on first listen, this album is special.

Plant then takes a huge left turn with the ballad “Season’s Song” which reminds me of the lush “Song To the Siren” from ‘Dreamland.’ Love remains the topic on the next track, “Dance With You Tonight.” All four of these tracks go in different sonic directions yet it’s all held together as a whole by Plant’s vocals… I just love where his voice is right now. He even manages a touch of politics in the topical “Carving Up the World… A Wall and Not a Fence.” I love Plant’s hippy, 60’s vibe. He’s like that cool  hippy uncle who let you drink beer before you were legally able to.

“Keep It Hid” is an atmospheric number that just seems to get better with each repeated listen. I love the guitar solo on that one…  “A Way With Words” is another piano driven ballad with a honey sweet vocal. The title track, “Carry Fire,” in another stylistic turn, has a middle eastern vibe that makes me feel like I’m sitting in a hashish den in Morocco with Plant while exotic women dance in veils around us… but that just might be me.

There are guitar driven songs here, like “New World…” and “Bones of Saints” that I think rock. Again, it’s not “Misty Mountain Hop” but they are rocking tunes. Plant’s vocals drop an octave and it’s hold on til the finish line time… The way Plant sings, “No, no, no, no, no, no no” in the latter track just grabs me…that and he name checks a Robert Johnson track, “Last Fair Deal Gone Down.”  With Plant, some of the non-verbal, singing, where he just holds an “o” or moans is as effective as when he’s singing words, if that makes any sense. He is probably the most charismatic singer I’ve ever heard. I don’t mean his physical presence when I speak of charisma, I’m talking about the sound of his voice. It’s an intoxicating, seductive instrument.

The album ends on another atmospheric, almost dark track, “Heaven Sent.” When Plant sings the lyric, “There’s an angel at the gate, singing a stolen kiss,” he could be singing about himself.

This album is great from start to finish. This is definitely a must-have record and for those of us down at B&V, it’s a candidate for album of the year. It’s a huge deal when an artist of the heft and talent of Robert Plant puts out a record. Everyone should hear this album. I can only hope I get a chance to catch him when he tours…No renting a bus this time around… Turn this one up and enjoy.

 

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