It’s not hard, listening to Band of Joy, to understand why Robert Plant should have resisted such potentially lucrative offers for a Led Zeppelin reunion tour.
Plant is one of a select few rock musicians of his generation to have sustained an inquisitive musical potency throughout his career, and probably the only one to have completely reinvented his own modus operandi with substantial success, morphing from the shrieking, priapic blues-hound of his youth into the warmer, more reflective folk and country singer that made this album.
It’s a manoeuvre which all singers have to face as they grow older and their voice gets deeper, and for Plant it’s virtually the equivalent of slipping from counter-tenor to bass-baritone. That he managed it with increased profile, sales and awards (for Raising Sand) is little short of miraculous; that he should now extend that success with what is largely a further selection of cover versions reborn as timeless folk-blues antiques speaks volumes about the imaginative sensitivity that Plant and co-producer Buddy Miller have brought to bear on the project.
The album opens with its most infectious cut, a version of Los Lobos’s “Angel Dance” in which mandolin dances nimbly over the deep, throbbing pow-wow pulse, while Plant’s cajoling vocal blends persuasively with those of Miller and Patty Griffin, both well-versed in the subtleties of country harmonies. The three voices continue their alignment on Richard Thompson’s “House of Cards”, which with its warning that “they’re washing the streets with the blood of your kind”, leads into darker, more menacing territory, as Miller’s skirling guitar drone combines astringently with Darrell Scott’s mandolin.
“Central Two-O-Nine” is perkier, a 12-string skiffle number inspired by, but not beholden to, Lightnin’ Hopkins, into which Plant and Miller have tipped a dollop of satanic blues imagery about black mares and long black trains. It neatly balances the more sombre, watchful tone of “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” later in the album, on which Plant’s murmured vocal and the dry-gulch plunking of Scott’s banjo evokes a vista of dusty rural hardship and superstition.
That song in turn seems linked with the similarly refurbished traditional piece “Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday”, whose mysterious, predatory lyric contains intimations of transgression that defeat sober analysis, tapping into some subconscious vein of desire: “Cindy got religion/ She had it once before/ She spilt it on a Saturday/ Upon a hard wood floor”. This constant to-and-fro between god and satan, good and bad, lust and piety, acts like a gyroscope at the album’s heart, and finds its most potent release in the two covers of songs by the Mormon indie trio Low, “Monkey” and “Silver Rider”, which respectively balance suicidal impulses and dark warnings of “the great destroyer” within glittering drone-rock settings.
But equally when exulting in the rolling simplicity of Barbara Lynn’s “You Can’t Buy My Love”, or sinking into the fathomless melancholy of Townes Van Zandt’s “Harm’s Swift Way”, this grips one’s imagination with a compulsion rare even among Plant’s most exalted peers.
I’ve never been as much of a Led Zeppelin fan as, well, pretty much everyone that I know. Oh sure, there are definitely Zeppelin songs that I like, but that often has more to do with something Jimmy Page plays, or the epic power of John Bonham’s drumming, than it does with Robert Plant’s vocals. There are exceptions. For example, I think that Plant’s vocal performance on the live version of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” from The Song Remains the Same is fantastic. But overall, Robert Plant has never done much for me.
I admired the Raising Sand album that Plant did with Alison Krauss in 2007 because it showed that he was willing to set out in new directions at this advanced stage of his career instead of just going for the big money being offered for a Led Zeppelin reunion tour. And when I heard that he was teaming up with one of the musicians that I admire most in this world, Buddy Miller, to produce a new album, I was intrigued to say the least. I am happy to report that on the basis of that new album, Band of Joy (Rounder Records), I am a newly-minted Robert Plant fan.
Plant and Miller have produced an ominous, rumbling epic with a completely original sound that seems perfect for the turbulent world into which it has been propelled. Most of the songs come from outside songwriters, but the producers have wisely chosen songs from cream-of-the-crop writers like David Hidalgo and Louie Perez (the opening “Angel Dance”), Richard Thompson (“House of Cards), and Townes Van Zandt (Harm’s Swift Way). But these are no mere cover versions. Each of the album’s songs has been painted with unique brushstrokes, and the entire production is quite unlike anything else I’ve heard before.
The real highlight comes deep into the album in the form of the intense, disturbing, alright — creepy “Monkey.” It’s impossible to know what to make of this song lyrically, but the production is so interesting that you will become fixated as the atmospherics claw their way into your psyche. “The Only Sound That Matters” is another high point, as is the beautiful “Silver Rider,” which features outstanding guitar work from Miller, and a beautiful harmony vocal from Patty Griffin. In fact, there is not a song on the album that should be missed.
If you’ve heard Buddy Miller’s own albums, and his productions for artists like Solomon Burke and Patty Griffin, you will immediately recognize his stamp on Band of Joy. Plant’s singing is restrained, but intense when it needs to be. There is none of the caterwauling that characterized his work with Led Zeppelin. This is a mature work, blending great songs, first-rate singing and playing, and top notch production. It all adds up to one of my favorite albums of the year.
Having won enough awards to keep his mantelpiece groaning for years for his 2007 collaboration with Alison Krauss, Robert Plant resists the temptation to repeat the Americana formula and give us Raising More Sand. Instead he invokes the name of Band of Joy, the psychedelic blues group he originally fronted before the birth of Led Zeppelin over four decades’ earlier, for an album of bounding energy and unexpected eclecticism.
Produced with formidable intensity and an impressive sonic feel by Nashville-based country stalwart Buddy Miller, it offers yet another indication of Plant’s commendably enduring desire to keep moving. Clearly neither advancing age nor years of unabated success have deprived Plant of either his constant appetite for challenge or his ability to deliver in a cogent, credible and thoroughly convincing fashion.
Whether wailing yearningly over a buoyant acoustic rhythm on the Lightnin’ Hopkins blues Central Two-O-Nine or rockin’n’rollin’ in time-honoured fashion on You Can’t Buy My Love, Plant is in terrific voice throughout. Pounding drums (from Marco Giovino) are pushed to the front of the mix and steel guitar and banjos abound on an album with country roots but which quickly develops tentacles that spread in surprising directions, from the gothic chime of Monkey to a vivacious spin on the folk song Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday.
Patty Griffin pops up with sublime vocal harmonies as Plant tackles some intriguing material. Opening with rhythmic overload on a Los Lobos rocker Angel Dance, he conjures up an authentic 1950s sound on an old Jimmie Rodgers hit Falling in Love Again, delivers an edgy treatment of a lesser-known Townes Van Zant song Harm’s Swift Way; creates a virulent swirling chorus on Richard Thompson’s House of Cards; and performs a masterly arrangement of the spiritual Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down, spritely banjo vying with broody guitar and ghostly backing choir as the track develops its subtle air of menace.
Just as producer T-Bone Burnett deservedly copped much of the acclaim for Raising Sand, Buddy Miller merits much credit for the richness here. But the glory rightly belongs to Plant.
The natural and the supernatural have long co-mingled in the world Robert Plant inhabits, as far back as his days fronting Led Zeppelin on through his bar-raising 2007 collaboration with Alison Krauss, “Raising Sand.” So it comes as no surprise that those forces are also central to his new project, produced by Americana heavyweight Buddy Miller and recorded in Nashville.
As veteran Plant followers would expect, there’s little here in common with the bulk of what’s coming out of Music City these days. He’s far more interested in the ancient roots of country and folk music, a haunted place where broken hearts rarely heal and where restless spirits find little peace.
Miller has provided Plant with a musical framework as deep as it is wide, not far afield from that which T Bone Burnett built for “Raising Sand.” Now that Krauss has returned to her longtime band Union Station, Plant calls on singer-songwriter Patty Griffin as his duet partner for seven of the 12 tracks, and she matches his yearning, questing vocals gorgeously.
It’s elemental stuff, emotionally and musically, that fascinates Plant — whether it’s the savage electric folk-blues treatment of Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance,” the raucous Bo Diddley proto-rock approach for Texas R&B musician Barbara Lynn’s “You Can’t Buy My Love” or the achingly beautiful grand-scale balladry of Low’s “Silver Rider.” He’s also concerned more with quiet revelations than top-of-the-lungs proclamations, which may disappoint those only interested in hearing his Zeppelin roar one more time.
“Band of Joy,” which revives the name of the band Plant was in before Zeppelin erupted from the earth’s molten core, feels more rooted to the earth than the consistently transcendent “Raising Sand,” but the singer effectively keeps a foot planted in each of those worlds.
It seems surprising that Robert Plant is never considered part of rock’s sexagenarian awkward squad, that select cabal of artists who’ve turned bewildering audiences and critics into an art form, who see pleasing the crowd as dereliction of duty. Judging by his solo career, that’s where he belongs – in the old contrarians’ clubhouse, basking in the sunny glow of Lou Reed’s winning personality, wiping a tear of mirth from his eye as Neil Young recalls how his fans hated 2009’s Fork in the Road so much they actually pleaded with his record label not to release it, nodding while Van Morrison revisits the time he decried music magazines for their “obsession with the past” during an interview to promote an album of 50s and 60s country-and-western covers.
Plant could certainly hold his own with them, at least on musical terms. No sooner had he minted a new-wave AOR style distinct from Led Zeppelin and scored a hit single with the unfortunately titled Big Log than things started to go off-road. First an album of high-camp 50s rock’n’roll covers as the Honeydrippers, then the flatly indescribable Shaken ‘N Stirred: whatever Plant’s fans imagined he’d end up doing in the 80s, it probably wasn’t singing a song called Doo Doo a Do Do over honks of atonal synth and flailing bass. On the occasions he’s acquiesced to the clamour for something Zeppelin-shaped, he’s thrown some kind of curveball: singing over samples of the band on 1989’s Now and Zen, enlisting Steve Albini as producer for the Page and Plant album Walking Into Clarksdale, then abandoning the reunion altogether, first to play the Queen Mary Ballroom in Dudley Zoo with the Priory of Brion, then to form Strange Sensation, the latter making Plant one of the few musicians in the world who’d rather be in a band with a bloke out of Cast than Jimmy Page. When Led Zeppelin finally did re-form, Plant appeared to go out of his way to talk the event’s significance down, then coolly walked away to promote his country album with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand.
Not even Raising Sand’s mammoth critical acclaim, multi-platinum sales and five Grammy awards could quell the clamour for a Led Zep reunion, much of it emanating from his former bandmates. Those who like to read deep meanings into things might feel there’s something telling in his decision to resurrect the name Band of Joy for his latest solo album: originally the name of Plant and John Bonham’s 60s psych-blues band, it harks back to a world in which Led Zeppelin never existed.
The preponderance of Nashville session players in Band of Joy’s ranks might lead you to expect a continuation of Raising Sand’s country explorations: singer Patty Griffin – her desolate voice a fascinating counterpart to the downhome warmth of Alison Krauss – and guitarist Darrell Scott have both written mainstream country hits for the Dixie Chicks. It’s an idea immediately upturned by the opening cover of Los Lobos’ Angel Dance. The mandolin riff in the chorus suggests it could have been performed as straight country, but instead the pretty melody is swamped in tremolo-heavy guitars: it sounds humid and mysterious. It’s evidence of Band of Joy’s often thrillingly tangential approach to their material, which is brilliantly chosen. You wouldn’t think it based on the way he dressed in the 70s, but Plant is a man of exquisite taste, hence two tracks from slowcore band Low’s 2005 album The Great Destroyer – their creepy intensity ratcheted up by guitarist Buddy Miller’s opaque smears of feedback and Plant and Griffin’s eerily controlled vocals – rub shoulders with a Richard Thompson song, House of Cards, a fabulous, obscure bit of mid-60s New Orleans r’n’b called Can’t Buy My Love and the late Townes Van Zandt’s heartbreaking final song, Harm’s Swift Way. Rather than play up the song’s weary pathos, the performance is straightforward, propulsive country-rock: you notice its sweet tune before the lyric’s stark intimations of mortality.
At the other extreme, there’s Even This Shall Pass Away: a 19th-century poem set to a clattering syncopated beat and buzzing synthesised bass, Plant’s voice entwining with fragments of densely effected guitar. You could, if you squint hard, see the ghost of Led Zeppelin lurking around its sound, yet it feels like a song with its eyes fixed firmly on the future, rather than resting on past glories. Like the rest of Band of Joy, it feels more edifying than a Led Zep reunion, not just for the guy singing on it, but the listener. It’s marked by the fresh excitement of mapping out new territory rather than the more craven pleasure of wallowing in nostalgia: an object lesson in the value of not giving people what they want.