Thursday, November 08, 2007

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand

These last few weeks, whenever I pay my daily visit to eMusic I get confronted with their flashy banner for Eric Clapton's downloadable memoirs. “A ROCK & ROLL GOD,” it proclaims, scrolling up to a picture of the young Slowhand and his Strat, settling on the image just long enough for the viewer to recognize him before scrolling to the rest of the message, “SHREDS HIS PEDESTAL.”

It catches my eye, but boy does it bug me. “Shreds his pedestal”? If we're using rock & roll metaphors, and we assert (wrongly) that Clapton's “shredding the guitar” is what got him to that pedestal, shouldn't we assume that “shredding his pedestal” is meant to elevate him someplace higher?

More to the point, I'm still enough of my mother's son to bristle at the term “rock & roll god.” She raised me to take the Ten Commandments seriously, especially the first. And even if I bypass my impulse toward reverence, the concept of a rock & roll god seems anachronistic. In the last 20 years, has anyone used the term without tongue in cheek? The recent spate of “reality based” rock celeb vehicles demonstrate that, with the right script, these jokers can still inspire amusement. But as for glory, laud and honor, well . . . when the music's over it really is best if we, to quote one late “rock & roll god,” turn out the lights.

Having said all that, it is difficult for me to attribute mere humanity to any of the Led Zeppelin crew, particularly Robert Plant. The music, the over-indulgence, the stupidity and even a tally of their most addled performances is of such a mythic scale, it all seems to blend seamlessly into something considerably larger than life. Especially the music. Especially the music. When, three minutes into “I Can't Quit You Babe” Robert Plant emits his guttural, primal...

“Whuuu-uh-uh-uuuuaaaaaawaaaaAAAAAWW!

... we're witness to a sound we can all identify with, but only he can make.

In the years since Zep retired, that sound is essentially what Robert Plant has brought to each of his solo projects. Plant has always demonstrated a remarkable range, but his choice of material tends to capitalize on his pipes, which even in his advanced years can deliver volume, volume, volume. So I permitted myself some amusement when I saw he was releasing — sorry: co-releasing — an album with the ethereally-voiced bluegrass artist Alison Krauss, called Raising Sand.

According to this Amazon promo clip, the three chief personalities involved entered the studio scared spitless. It's easy to see why. Plant, Krauss and producer T Bone Burnett are music visionaries with very distinct takes on their chosen genres. Perhaps I presume, but I think Burnett and the band provided the sonic space for Plant and Krauss to play in. Burnett keeps the reverb high and the overall sound swampy, letting the bass or the higher range peek out from time to time, only to retreat when the voices return. Plant responds by keeping his voice hushed, without losing any of his character. Krauss, in turn, locates her ability to swing, and the result is aural magic.

I do Krauss an injustice by focusing on Plant. She is exceedingly gifted, but the fact is she is still young and has a lifetime of musical exploration ahead of her. Plant is facing the final curtain. And in this album, for the first time in his life, he evokes a yearning, touching, finite humanity. This could well be my favorite album of the year.

10 comments:

Yahmdallah said...

I read an excerpt from the Clapton bio somewhere. It was the part of his life where his son fell out of a window to his death. Clapton's (self-admitted) narcissism really put me off.

Jim said...

So, here's the thing. I didn't like Raising Sand.

Don't get me wrong, the vocal performances were terrific! Really stellar!

But the production had me reaching for the Pepto Bismol, what with all that tremolo guitar undulating and billowing like the sea. Yech!

And what was with the swampy (very apt term, that) reverb. My goodness!

That overall sound works on certain tunes, but not every single damn song. What the hell?

Plant and Krauss deserved a much better effort and a higher commitment to making not only their performances stand out, but the songs as well.

And to those people who were surprised that Robert Plant could sing like that, they really ought to dig out that old Honeydrippers Project. He sang pretty good there, too. And he didn't sound like he was swimming bayou.

Jim said...

sorry, swimming in bayou.

Whisky Prajer said...

Y-man - Yeah, I think that bit was in Vanity Fair. I read it too and thought it was thoroughly depressing, for your reasons as well as the obvious ones.

Jim - well, on this particular issue of sound, you and I must part ways because I was never a fan of the Honeydrippers.

Scott said...

No surprise to me about Plant's crooning. As I am (only slightly) younger than you, I actually discovered Robert Plant on his own first and worked backwards into the massive rock of Zeppelin:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZQL22xOmUM

Great stuff!
But how can you not like "Sea of Love"?

Whisky Prajer said...

"Sea of Love" was, for this listener, as much a victim of the times as it was an unwelcome aural assault on my inner-ear. Here I was in my stove-pipe jeans and cowboy boots, listening to the Stray Cats and the Blasters attempting to revive a "lost" musical genre, and suddenly this geezer steps in with his ├╝ber-production and tries to shoulder out the younger competition. Well, if we'd wanted a chaperon we'd have called that uncle twice removed.

Or so it seemed. At the time.

paul bowman said...

It's good to have your take on the Plant & Krauss album. Since I can't afford more essential things these days, I try to keep away from music write-ups & CD stores — but even so, this has had my eye.

DarkoV said...

Having had to live through the Led Zeppelin era and having successfully endured Plant's emotive moans and stage posings (saw them once way, way back in Monreal; I think I'm the only person ever who fell asleep at a Led Zeppelin concert), I have a lousy attitude toward any of the band members' post-LZ forays into musical expositions.
Caught a couple of tracks off of this album and it was as if I were bitten by a bey of tze-tze flies. A deep and troubling sleep resulted despite the loveliness of Alison Krauss' presence.

It's me, just me WP. Album of the Year, eh?

Whisky Prajer said...

Montreal "tea" is the stuff of legend, to which you and your Zep-ledded snooze are adding considerable weight.

As for Album Of The Year (or AOTY, as it shall hereby be referred to), we shall see. The end of December is quite a distance away, and my whims are (I'd like to think) charmingly fickle. Stay tuned.

Jim said...

I wasn't suggesting that the Honeydrippers were good, merely that Robert Plant could actually sing and not just moan and/or shout. Not that I have anything against moaning/shouting per se.