Review Summary: An unlikely combination of superstars produces one of the year’s best.
From the outset, something like this has got to sound interesting. On one hand you have Robert Plant, singer and songwriter for rock and roll gods Led Zeppelin. On the other hand, you have Alison Krauss, the queen of modern bluegrass and the winner of more Grammy Awards than any other female artist with 20. From two seemingly diametric backgrounds, a love of harmonic vocals and American roots music brought these legends together in the studio where they charted new territory and explored new sounds for their repertoires. With the monumental direction, influence, and guitar-playing of producer T-Bone Burnett, this experimental project presents Raising Sand
. What is technically a duet album sounds more like a profound fusion of two exceptional voices that play off of each other to create a collection of incredible harmonies.
Fans of either artist should know that the style of Plant and Krauss’s middle ground lie in the fields of rockabilly, blues and folk rock. While perhaps Plant strays a bit more out of his comfort zone, especially with origins as a hard-hitting rock star, both musicians were unknowing and curious about what their collaboration would yield. As Krauss tells it, when she was going over the songs Burnett suggested for her to sing, Burnett said, “Well, you both are nervous… and that’s what I wanted.”
The core band involved in this project includes vocalists from Plant and Krauss, fiddle by Krauss, producer and guitarist Burnett, guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Dennis Crouch, drummer Jay Bellerose, guitarist Norman Blake, and multi-instrumentalist Mike Seeger.
The first track “Rich Woman” lays out very nicely what the rest of album has in store with an old-fashioned introduction of a wavering, almost haunting electric guitar rhythm and a crystal clear drum beat that really makes the song a fun toe-tapper. Before long, though, is what we have all come to hear: Plant and Krauss nail the mood of the song perfectly and strike a perfect balance between fragile harmony and the swagger of the melody. The next song, the country ballad “Killing the Blues,” however, more aptly characterizes the general speed of the album, which is very slow. That the album is too slow would be the main complaint with the album, but it is hard to deny that the songs that drag down the pace are also exceedingly beautiful. Furthermore, the second half of the album picks up in speed as well as in song diversity.
After two songs that feature Plant and Krauss together, Krauss takes the helm with “Sister Rosetta Comes Before Us,” a graceful, haunting song that is sung beautifully with Plant offering an occasional harmonization. “Polly Come Home” is very similar, except that Plant takes the spotlight. His voice is surprisingly gentle with each wavering note captured and amplified by Burnett’s expert production. A raw guitar riff by none other than Burnett himself dominates the rockabilly “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On),” which has been released as a single and nominated for the Grammy Award for “Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.” Other songs, however, perhaps more deserve being released as a single, like the following track “Through the Morning, Through the Night.” This track is the album’s best example of Krauss and Plant using their gentle harmony to make the song into an especially potent emotional force. The song is nearly impossible to glaze over (or whatever is equivalent for the ear) as both voices are full of weight and inflection that responds wonderfully to the heaviness of the lyrics: “I dreamed just last night you were there by my side / Your sweet loving tenderness / Easing my pride / But then I awoke dear and found you not there / It was just my old memory of how much I care.”
More uplifting musically is “Please Read the Letter,” which in song length (almost six minutes), building verses and soaring chorus demands the most space on the album. The sorrowful “Trampled Rose” and the mainstream-sounding folk-pop of “Stick With Me Baby” keep the album tethered to a base of downtempo folk gems, but the album is nevertheless now in its more diversified second half. Between these songs is “Fortune Teller,” which is probably the most recorded and well-known song on the album. Originally recorded by R&B singer Benny Spellman in 1962, it has been covered by The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Hollies, and many more. Like many other songs here, the duo (well, trio including Burnett) almost make it their own with an extremely catchy breakdown that boasts the band’s instrumental finesse and shows Plant and Krauss having fun on the recording.
Some fantastic songs close out this fantastic album. “Nothin’” is a steady-going but powerful song led by electric guitar roars, Krauss’s fiddle work, and comparatively quieter breaks for Robert Plant’s eerie vocals that seem to harken back to Plant’s Led Zeppelin days. It is sure to be an album favorite for Plant and Led Zeppelin fans. “Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson” is the ultimate toe-tapper of the album that dares you to get up and start dancing. As Plant had his best vocal performance on the previous track, Krauss is at her best here with some impassioned singing. She is at her loudest and most aggressive on the verses here in a performance that must be even more electrifying live. Finally, “Your Long Journey,” with its high-tuned melody and warm mood, closes out the album as it began: with Krauss and Plant singing together in excellent harmony.
For all the credit given to Plant and Krauss on this project that is surely a landmark in both careers, the stripped-down, skeletal production of T-Bone Burnett, who brought the same style and influence to the award winning American roots soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?
in 2000, must not go unappreciated. In addition to his contribution as a guitarist, this collaboration would likely not have come into fruition or have been this astonishing without Burnett’s direction and production.
With rumors and speculation swirling over the future of Led Zeppelin (New album? Tour?), one sure thing is that Plant is going to be on tour with Krauss and Burnett supporting Raising Sand
across Europe in June of 2008, demonstrating how close the project is to each of them. Furthermore, new material between them in the future is not out of the question. In this exciting new experiment, Plant ventures into the new realm of harmony singing that was never really an issue with Led Zeppelin, while Krauss strays from the confining bluegrass constructs that especially characterized her early career origins and finds space to breath with help from a blending of American roots genres. Together, this unexpected collaboration has yielded unexpected results from two accomplished musicians out of their comfort zones but nevertheless shining.