Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's Raising Sand Was the 2007 Album of the Year. Has He Done It Again?
Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move
Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.
Oh, oh, child, way you shake that thing
Gonna make you burn, gonna make you sting.
Hey, hey, baby, when you walk that way
Watch your honey drip, can't keep away.
I don't want to go too far out of a limb, but don't you think Robert Plant is singing here about... sex?
I'll go further. Robert Plant, in this and so many other Led Zeppelin songs, is delivering the emotion of sex. And in some of his moves, acting out the experience -- being sex. Cover the children's eyes as you watch him at the two-minute mark.
That, kids, is rock and roll. And in this kind of music, the lyrics matter mostly to the copyright office -- from the audience's point-of-view, all that really matters is the sound.
As a performer and as a writer -- he wrote the lyrics to "Stairway to Heaven," among other classics -- Plant's focus with Led Zeppelin was much more about sound than words. It had to be. Zep was loud and brash. It had a drummer who pounded and a guitarist who killed. The first obligation of the singer was simply to be heard.
Robert Plant got heard. Led Zeppelin moved into legend. And, on the money charts, Plant comes in among the top twenty British rockers -- in 40 years, he's made an estimated $100 million.
The glories of Robert Plant are that he isn't sitting in a castle in Wales, curled around a bottle as night descends. At 62, he looks like a man who's lived, and lived intensely, and hasn't given a thought about plastic surgery. Even better, at 62, he's still performing -- and not performing his greatest hits.
I was an early and ardent cheerleader for Raising Sand, his 2007 collaboration with bluegrass singer and violinist Alison Krauss. I concluded that review:
At the corner of quality and daring, we find a welcome novelty. Cover songs as cutting edge music? A rocker finding the kind of tenderness he used to sneer at? A bluegrass sweetheart who seemed to want to grow up to be Emmylou Harris discovering a wild side? All of the above.
Miracles occur. Magic is afoot. And "Raising Sand" is the CD of the year.
"Raising Sand" went on to win five Grammy Awards, including album of the year and record of the year.
"Band of Joy" is a sequel, and not. [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. To buy the download from Amazon, click here. To download from iTunes, click here.] It started out with that ambition, but T-Bone Burnett (producer of "Raising Sand") and Krauss didn't quite satisfy Plant. As he told an interviewer:
"I would never have known when Alison and I tried to keep going that it was too soon after 'Raising Sand.' It was too soon to go back to the same place, and Alison wanted to try something different and new. I pried open the door of the great vault and I said: 'Look, I don't want to go anywhere different. I just want to make this spookier and crazier and more trippy, but I want to go to those profound moments.'"
He replaced Burnett with Buddy Miller -- in 2004, I thought his gospel-tinged CD was the album of the year -- who knew him well: Miller was the guitarist on the "Raising Sand" tour. Miller astutely brought in Patty Griffin, not as an equal partner but as a backup singer. The result? Plant says: "I've got a ball of twine 'round Patty's ankle. And it's attached to Buddy's navel. So that'll do fine. They won't get far."
"Band of Joy" is not original music. It's a collection of American songs that Plant has heard along the way. (And the way has been eclectic -- Plant says he found "Can't Buy Me Love," an obscure 1963 Barbara Lynn soul song, on a bonus CD in the music issue of The Oxford American magazine.) These songs run the gamut, and that's the point; the CD is an exploration, a probe, a stretch.
The first song, "Angel Dance," is irresistible:
The pounding drum gets you going, doesn't it? But what's best, for me, is what you almost don't notice -- the mandolin -- supporting that unmistakable voice. The whole CD is like that. You have to pay attention to get Patty Griffin's contributions. And Buddy Miller isn't known for mixing his guitar so it's the star of a song.
Yes, it's possible to put this CD on as background music. It's more rewarding, though, to pay attention to it. Not for the words --- the lyrics are more meaningful than the Zep hits, but they're not poems set to music. Listen for the sound, the mix, the texture. Listen, if you will, for the art.