I think I mentioned when I posted about Dave Gahan & the Soulsavers new LP Imposters, that there was a lot of great new music that came out last weekend. Springsteen released an explosive live LP recorded at the No Nukes concert in 1979. And, believe it or not, Sting released a new LP that caught my ear. That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write again. Despite my maniacal focus on Gahan’s new LP, there was another album that caught my ear immediately. The long awaited new collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raise The Roof. I can’t believe it’s been 14 years since their first album, the monumental Raising Sand.
I can still remember Raising Sand’s release like it was yesterday. Bob Dylan was right, time really is a jet plane. I was really into Robert Plant at the time. Truth be told I always have been and likely always will be into Robert’s music. He had emerged from his collaboration with Jimmy Page (Page Plant) which had yielded a couple of LPs (one of them live) and two tours both of which I was lucky enough to see. The second tour by Page Plant was like being transported back to 1974, but I digress. The first LP he did post Page Plant was 2002’s Dreamland. It was an atmospheric album of blues and classic rock covers. I loved that album. When I saw Plant on that tour I was so enamored that I bought a concert t-shirt with the album cover on it… and it was mustard yellow. I told myself it was gold… it wasn’t gold. I wore that thing for years until the Rock Chick finally nodded, “no.” I remember reading about Dreamland and Plant saying something about breaking in his new backing band by culling through his record collection for great songs for them to play. He must have a pretty cool collection. I can only hope it’s all on vinyl.
While I dug Dreamland, as I usually like albums consisting of all cover songs, I did hope that Plant would return to his solo career full-fledged so to speak, with an album of originals. My patience and hope was rewarded when Plant returned in 2005 with The Mighty Rearranger. What a knock-out that album was. I think Rearranger ranks amongst his best solo stuff. Around late 2006 or early 2007 I remember a brief interview of Plant in Rolling Stone. They asked what was next for him and he said he’d written down a bunch of song titles and given them to the band to come up with music for each one. He’d fill in the lyrics later. He did mention something about being on the way to do a benefit concert for a long passed blues guy (whose name escapes me) put together by T. Bone Burnett. Somewhere along the line, Burnett suggested for the benefit that Plant do a duet with Alison Krauss of an old Lead Belly song. So entranced by their combined vocals, they decided to record an album of duets with T Bone producing.
Having read the press stuff leading up to Raising Sand I was keeping an eye out for the release date. At the time I remember thinking, I’ll probably dig the Plant led songs. I didn’t know much about Krauss but I thought I could “suffer” through songs that featured her. The day it came out, I stopped on my way to work and picked up the CD. I wasn’t buying a ton of vinyl in the early 2000s, alas. When I got home I went immediately to our basement…which is where the stereo was and started playing Raising Sand. Within moments the Rock Chick was in the basement asking me what the great music was. When the album was over, we were both blown away. The Rock Chick looked at me and said, “Wow that was kick ass.” Little did we know it was going to be a world wide sensation. While on the surface it seemed like an odd pairing. Krauss, to my great surprise, is an amazing singer with her roots in bluegrass. Plant is an amazing singer with his roots in well, rootsy music like bluegrass, the blues and folk. Their harmonizing is something akin to sorcery. It’s magic alchemy. T. Bone is the only producer who can help these two produce such an atmospheric, swampy mix of music which is the perfect backdrop for the harmonies. I was lucky enough to see Plant/Krauss in concert on the tour in support of Raising Sand and it was superb. The harmonizing was just as spot on live.
I assumed there would be a follow up and in 2009 it was rumored they were working on one but nothing materialized. I think they did record some stuff but Plant “didn’t hear the magic.” Plant, in my opinion, is one man who doesn’t like expectations and pressure. I think that’s why he’s never reunited with Led Zeppelin for anything more than one-offs. Although Bonham was a close childhood friend of his and that loss can’t be overcome. Plant formed Band of Joy and put out an album by the same name that was similar in spirit. He had Patti Griffin on harmony vocals… but it just wasn’t the same. As Joe Strummer said, and I’m fond of repeating, never underestimate the chemistry of the same people in a room.
A few months ago, now with all of us 14 years down the road, I heard Plant Krauss (along with T. Bone) were finally set to put out a follow up LP, Raise The Roof. With its similar title to the first record, I thought maybe this would merely be Raising Sand 2.0. There are certainly similarities obviously but this is not the 2.0 I thought it might be. They’ve picked some really obscure tracks – at least to me – for the new album. They must have dug back into Plant’s record collection again. They go from 60s era folk stuff to country and blues stuff that was recorded 90 years ago. Some of the artists they cover here I’ve never heard of. There is one original on the album, penned by Plant and T. Bone, “High And Lonesome.” One thing that draws me to a cover song is enjoying the new version but being reminded of the original. So many of these tracks are unknown to me, it almost feels like these are originals.
The sound of this record, to me, differs from Raising Sand as well. There was a swampy murk to their first record that I don’t hear as much of here. They lean on more traditional country rock/folk structures here. Its not a bad change, but feels different, like an expansion from the first record. On the Raising Sand there were a lot of tracks where they both sang and harmonized for the whole tune, co-lead vocalists if you will, but on Raise the Roof on many of the tracks Plant or Krauss takes a more lead vocal and the harmonizing is on the choruses. Subtle differences between albums and I don’t think the slightly altered approach hurts this new record at all. In fact, this is a great album and a great sounding one as well. It is certainly one of our albums of the year, if not the album of the year. It’s amazing how many “all covers” LPs came out this year (Gahan, Chrissie Hynde, and the Black Keys to name a few).
I’ll admit as (World I’ve already hinted at, I love Raise The Roof. It’s about all I’ve listened to since Friday. There isn’t a bad song here. The opening track, “Quattro (World Drifts In)” by an obscure Tex-Mex indie band from Arizona, Calexico, is a great opening track. It’s almost spectral with wonderful harmonies. It builds a real sense of drama and mystery. I may have to check out Calexico. On “The Price of Love” Krauss takes more of the lead vocal and it may be my favorite of her vocals on the LP. There’s a great little guitar solo on the song as well. It’s an Everly Brothers cover and could I say, is there a more perfect duo to cover on a duets LP than the Everly Brothers? Plant comes in vocally right under Krauss, it’s perfect, like Phil and Don. On “Go Your Own Way,” an Anne Briggs (the 60s English folk singer) cover, Plant takes more of lead vocal and it’s wonderful. Silky acoustic guitars and a mandolin as pillows for Plant’s seductive vocal. It may be Plant’s best vocal on an album of standout vocals.
Another stand out is “Searching For My Love” originally done by the Rhythm Aces, a great 50’s rock n rolls style tune, especially the chorus. They do a Lucinda Williams’ track “Can’t Let Go” which I reviewed earlier and it remains one of my absolute favorites here. “You Led Me Wrong” is an old country song by Ola Belle Reed that Plant turns into an almost bluesy thing and features a great violin. I think Krauss should play more violin whenever she can. I love what Krauss does with Alan Toussaint’s “Trouble With My Lover” with Plant on the mischievous harmony vocal. And she was made to sing Merle Haggard’s “Going Where the Lonely Go.” Great high and lonesome pedal steel guitar floating around her vocals…
I love a pair of tracks toward the end of the album where they stretch out their sound a little bit. The lone original, “High And Lonesome” has a rumbling rock n roll vibe. This track would have been right at home on Plant’s last solo LP Carry Fire. It sounds current and at the same time ancient. Plant uses some vocal effects on the chorus while guitars clang around behind him in what sounds like an attempt to expand their sound palate. The last track, “Somebody Was Watching Over Me,” which sounds like an original is a Maria Muldaur track written by Brenda Burns. Muldaur who I’m unfamiliar with was another 60s folky. They turn that song upside down. It sounds like an outtake from Principle of Moments. I love the line, “My bad times are better than my good times used to be…” I can relate… The song sounds like nothing Plant Krauss has done before. Again effects are used for background vocals. “Somebody was watching” gets repeated over and over like a mantra until it’s almost menacing over a fuzzy guitar riff. It certainly points to a direction they could have taken if they wanted to completely break with their original sound… An intriguing detour indeed.
If you were like me and you fell in love with Raising Sand, be ready to have that same feeling all over again. With the success of that album I never thought Plant would agree to do another album with Alison Krauss due to increased expectations around any kind of follow up. I think I can say after hearing this album, he had nothing to worry about. Their beautiful alchemy remains solidly in tact. This is simply put, a great album.
Cheers and Happy (and safe) Thanksgiving this week to all of you in the U.S. especially if you’re traveling. This post came quickly on the heels of my last one but I’ll be celebrating with family, turkey and bourbon this week. I’m reminded that George Carlin once wondered why no one ever had sex on Thanksgiving… he thought maybe it was because all the coats are on the bed. Well, no B&V post gets written during Thanksgiving because… all of the coats are on the bed and the house is full of relatives…gads.