Even as he attempts to shake off a monolithic past, Robert Plant allows the proverbial monkey on his back to make an appearance now and then. At least that’s the general impression attached to his new CD Mighty Rearranger. A thoroughly solid effort, here’s a record that offers its own distinctive dose of drama and dynamics, yet is moderately embellished with shades and strokes of retro-like Zeppelinisms. Accompanied by the Strange Sensation, whose playful interaction so masterfully shaped 2002’s Dreamland into a rootsy, organic delight – Plant blasts through a repertoire supercharged with optimism, vibrancy and plenty of chops.
It starts out innocently as the North African backbeat and staccato guitar on “Another Tribe” sets the stage. From there, the levee breaks wide open for the first single, “Shine It All Around.” Once Plant declares, “These are the times of my life/Bright and strong and golden,” it’s a sure sign of things to come. So he fires away with “Freedom Fries” and “Tin Pan Valley,” two prime-time hip shakers guaranteed to make Jimmy Page blush. Actually, it almost sounds as if Page is playing on “All The Kings Horses,” a soothing acoustic piece that, in spots, sounds eerily familiar (which has nothing to do with the fact that 20 years ago, Page’s band the Firm recorded another song entitled “All The King’s Horses”).
Elsewhere, Plant employs some modern-day foreshadowing during “The Enchanter” before heading through a minefield of Middle Eastern ramblings on “Takamba” and “Somebody Knocking.” The sultry, borderline rockabilly pulse of “Let The Four Winds Blow” is another engaging stroll down memory lane, leaving the title track vying for attention like another old-school sock-hopper rolling through town. It boils down to the album’s final track “Brother Ray” that, despite clocking in at only 1:12, ends the whole affair on a cheerful note. With every intention of forging ahead on his own, Robert Plant is on a wild streak of making records with loving care and handling.
A Led Zeppelin reunion may be the dream for some, but if Mighty Rearranger is any indication, the golden-throated singer’s own aspirations all but transcend the expectations of the masses. He tosses off the occasional nod of where he’s been, but Plant isn’t afraid to take chances and wander into unexplored regions, no matter what the consequences are.
At 56, it’s as if he’s reaching his potential as an independent artist without saddling the burden of a Zeppelinesque past to delude his way.
Over the course of time, there have been arguments as to which member of supergroup quartet Led Zeppelin was the most important one. Some say that John Bonham’s drumming was parallel to none—that he could bash harder and stronger than any other drummer (quite true). Some would say that the quiet man, John Paul Jones, was most valuable for his bass and keyboard work, and his behind-the-scenes arrangements which helped shape Zep’s mighty sound (also quite true). And of course, Jimmy Page is revered as one of the most important and influential guitarists in rock and roll history (again, quite true). But what gave Led Zeppelin its voice (literally and figuratively) was lead singer Robert Plant. His wails could alter brain cells for life, yet he could also sing as delicately as a feather, and make it all count. (For those who want to argue Page vs. Plant, all I need to say is two words: The Firm. Argument over, case closed.)
Since the demise of the mighty Zep in 1980, Plant has gone on a varied musical course, from stylin’ with the Honeydrippers to dropping solo albums such as Pictures at Eleven and The Principle of Moments, even using guest drummers ranging from Phil Collins to Richie Hayward (Little Feat) to Barriemore Barlow (Jethro Tull). After a few releases which pleased critics but bored fans, Plant retreated until 1988, when he released Now and Zen, where he grew comfortable enough to refer to his former band in his music and song selections on the subsequent tour. There was even a period where he reunited with Page (but not Jones; the two were always at odds). Plant’s career continued to fluctuate, despite the excellent Dreamland, released three years ago. But with the release of Mighty Rearranger, Plant finally appears comfortable in his old skin, while clinging tightly to his newer muse.
With one listen to these dozen songs, one can play the “Spot the Zeppelin” influence to the point of making this review five pages long, so we’ll take a pass. Let’s just say that anyone who loved the Zep will be having cataclysmic orgasmic interludes whilst cranking this sucker up to 10. But it sounds as though Plant isn’t concerned about the comparisons to his first band of note—in fact, he seems to embrace the concept, when in past, he would run away as far as he could from such statements. This album rocks harder than any previous Plant solo entity, and probably can give some of the later Led Zep works a run for the money. Now, this is not to say that guitarists Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson are the second coming of Mr. Page—that wouldn’t be fair—but it is safe to say that both can clearly hold their own for what is asked of them here. And credit Plant to realize that he’s working with a different cast of characters who are working to give him that “Zep classic sound” without disregarding Plant’s love of Indian influence (touches of Moroccan influence abound). The same goes for drummer Clive Deamer—his drum technique is both hard and strong, but he doesn’t try to overtake Bonham; he just uses Bonham’s influence to make the songs work. And with one exception, the songs work in one form or another.
Start with the opener “Another Tribe”. It’s a slice of Moroccan influence (John Baggott’s keyboard work is slippery and sensual). Speaking of sensual, Plant’s vocals are as soft and supple as he’s ever used them—and exceedingly clear, too. “Shine It All Around’’ cooks itself from a slow percolation to a near over boil before the steam drops down back to a simmer, only to rise again. Here, bassist Billy Fuller shines. Up next is “Freedom Fries”, with an angular beat that goes back to the days of “Custard Pie or “Black Dog”. (Sorry—that’ll be my only song reference to specific songs of the mighty Zep.)
The song most talked about on the album is “Tin Pan Valley” for Plant’s not-so-subtle dig at those he perceives to be heir to his throne. (“My peers may flirt with cabaret, some fake the rebel yell, me I’m moving up to higher ground, I must escape their hell’‘) “All the King’s Horses” is just like it sounds—a fairy tale about love. “The Enchanter” combines blues guitar with Eastern Indian rhythms for a nice mix. And though Plant’s vocals are at the top of the mix, he lays back enough to let the music come through. The entire album is like that, which shows that Plant has the confidence and trust with his band to keep it on a cooperative, rather than a competitive level.
“Takamba” also has an angular beat to go along with some rockin’ guitar work and several shifts in tempo. It sounds like a mish-mash on paper, but it’s a different story when it pours out of the speakers. “Dancing in Heaven” is pleasant enough, but sounds like a George Harrison outtake. “Somebody Knocking” is tabla central; it’s not the strongest song on the disc, but not the weakest, either. “Let the Four Winds Blow” is a jazzy-styled number where the guitar and vocals sound like a very familiar old song (no, it’s not Led Zeppelin, but it’s Paul Revere and the Raiders’s “Indian Reservation”). And sorry—they don’t scream out “Cherokee people!”.
The last two songs are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. The title song is the strongest cut here, with a bouncy beat and a byplay between a piano and an organ sounding like a flute. Mix that with some guitar work that came from a Clint Eastwood western, and you have a song that you’ll have on the “repeat” key on your CD or MP3 player. And as for the finale, let’s just say that “Brother Ray” is over eight minutes of psychedelic trippiness that serves no true purpose other than to supposedly honor Ray Charles. Plant would have been better off to cover a Charles tune straightforwardly.
Even with the strength of Dreamland, it’s hard to know what to expect when Robert Plant gets the jones (no pun intended) to record another album. A positive telling clue was that he used just about all of the same personnel that appeared in Dreamland, so you knew this had a chance to be decent. Well, it’s beyond decent. Plant put out an album that sticks out its chest in pride of who he was in Led Zeppelin without compromising his love of the Eastern influences that are his usual trademark. With a mix of harder-edged and softer tunes, Plant has gone to both extremes, and his experience has taught him that he doesn’t need to scream his vocals to have power and intensity. The musicianship is tighter than a New York subway car at rush hour, and yet there’s an airy, relaxed feel in the groove. Zep lovers and Plant skeptics, Mighty Rearranger is your ‘70s flashback nirvana. Robert Plant has learned that he can look fondly back at the past while keeping his feet planted firmly in the present and future. Now all that’s needed to complete the picture is a black-light poster and a lava lamp.
Robert Plant has never tried blatantly to distance himself from the recordings that he made with Led Zeppelin, but that, nevertheless, has been the result of his perplexing string of solo outings, on which he has spent more time chasing current market trends and production techniques than making durable music. Sure, all of his efforts have contained at least a few nuggets that were worth savoring, but only sporadically did the material hold its ground against the formidable presence of his former group. In the wake of 1993’s Fate of Nations, however, Plant reunited with his old pal Jimmy Page, and together the duo reinvented Led Zeppelin’s exalted canon.
Although their subsequent concert recording No Quarter sounded tentative and their studio album Walking into Clarksdale was only superficially pleasing, the nostalgic journey relit a fire in Plant that had been dormant for far too long.
By the time he resumed his solo career, Plant had formed Strange Sensation with musicians who previously had collaborated with Portishead, Massive Attack, and Jah Wobble, and the band made its debut on his highly regarded 2002 effort Dreamland. Although the album was composed almost entirely of cover songs, the power and energy wielded by the group was unmistakable. In rummaging through a selection of tunes by artists that had been a huge influence upon him, Plant not only was rediscovering his muse, but he also was teaching his new group a little bit about his heroes.
In the end, Dreamland didn’t become an indispensable part of his catalog, but it did play a pivotal role in pushing him forward by providing a solid foundation upon which he could construct the next phase of his career.
Indeed, it’s Strange Sensation that serves as Plant’s backing band throughoutMighty ReArranger, his eighth solo outing and his first in 12 years to focus upon original material. At its core, the songs are all drawn from the familiar wellspring of pastoral, folk-infused ruminations and booming, blues-baked bellows that served as the basis for Led Zeppelin’s reign over rock ’n‘ roll, but filtered through its contents are a variety of Middle Eastern and trip-hop flourishes. Granted, there’s nothing here that hasn’t surfaced within Plant’s music in the past, but the manner in which it is delivered — a combination of the heavy-hitting crunch of Led Zeppelin I and the tasteful restraint of Led Zeppelin IV — makes all the difference in the world.
The opening Another Tribe, for example, pits a primal drum beat against a moody, psychedelic, folk-pop arrangement thereby setting the tone for the duration of Mighty ReArranger. Elsewhere, the ensemble fully showcases its dynamic range by lacing Tin Pan Valley with a mesmerizing, electronic burble before discharging its pent-up tension and energy in a violent, volcanic blast over which Plant unleashes his inimitable, trademark howl; the hypnotic swirl of The Enchanter offers an ambient update of his former band’s No Quarter; and like an off-kilter reworking of Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away, the stuttering rhythmic groove of Freedom Fries is whipped into a thunderous, metallic roar. Adding extra bite to the album is its lyrical content, which binds together a loosely-knit collection of statements about the rise and fall of empires — American imperialism, to be more specific — and the dream of a world that is united in peace rather than divided by war.
While it loses some of its initial steam as the set slips comfortably into its latter half, Mighty ReArranger, when taken in full, is undeniably Plant’s most cohesive and compelling outing since his days fronting Led Zeppelin.
Admirers of 2002’s “Dreamland” will be pleased to see Robert Plant’s run of form continue with “Mighty Rearranger,” an earthy album sprinkled with Middle-Eastern influences. Wonderfully, there are moments (such as on the hushed “Another Tribe”) that see Plant’s voice defying age and sounding just as it did thirty years ago, as he re-ignites us with the trance of understated “Morocco’n’roll,” amplifying the Sahara sounds of the badir and lute with a jagged, bluesy edge.
The Strange Sensation, for the most part, provide capable backing for Plant’s modern impetus, but at times are guilty of sounding little more than an assembly of various members of not-so-great bands of the late 90s (which, arguably, they are). The first single, “Shine It All Around” (a song where Plant sings of his regeneration while perhaps owing something lyrically to the Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light”) is one such example, whereas “Tin Pan Valley” sounds like it’s veering a little too close to a Superunknown-era Soundgarden riff.
“Freedom Fries,” meanwhile, storms ahead, running the blues through the dust of the desert before the warbling intro of “Tin Pan Valley” threatens to put the listener right off. Thankfully, the other elements of the song manage to pull it together, with Plant’s near-whispering of his refusal to fall into the traps of his peers meaning that the wrinkles do make an (intentional) brief appearance, after all.
Though carrying a touch of “The Rain Song” to it (in fact, that same falling, open-chord sound can be found in numerous places on “Mighty Rearranger”), the excellent “All The King’s Horses” is a dreamy, acoustic reverie that has Plant at his most sublime. Things continue to come together nicely with the stirring “The Enchanter,” though the guitar interestingly sounds like it belongs to Jack White’s take on the blues. The political “Takamba,” meanwhile, feels as if it’s groping for the same vibe as Plant’s much favoured Moroccan nomads “The Berber Tribesmen”, but instead it closes down that route altogether and wastes no time in rocking things out, resonating Plant’s 21st century sound.
The warm, sifting sound of “Dancing In Heaven,” with its lovely, wordless chorus, helps to further tilt the balance of the album in favour of the good far outweighing the forgettable. There seems to be another shift in guitar sound for both “Let the Four Winds Blow” and the title track, as if, after much honing, Plant and co. have settled for a bluesier feel. Accordingly, these two tracks pull no punches, adding some meaty weight to the fold, straightforward as it may be. The final (listed) number is a quick, endearing jam as Plant reproduces the vowel sounds of Them’s “Gloria” to the sounds of an impromptu honky-tonk piano. The bonus track, however, is a new-age remix of “Shine It All Around” which tries its hand at tame drum’n’bass, and fails to work in any way.
In all, there’s much to like here, and Robert Plant’s die-hard contingent will doubtless feel that he hasn’t put a foot wrong. Though he’s guaranteed to never disappear from the musical map thanks to his achievements with Led Zeppelin, with “Mighty Rearranger,” Plant’s Indian dream-catcher brings together the nuances of Blues and Arabic folk with political commentary, showing that his sound is maturing gracefully, and just as importantly, that he’s still got that fiery roar.