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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Artist: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Length: 13 songs/
Don't think it too peculiar that bluegrass belle Alison Krauss would join musical forces with elder hard rocker Robert Plant.
Krauss has admitted in print that one of her guiltier listening pleasures is AC/DC's Back in Black, so it's no great stretch to think she digs on the band that made Plant's name, Led Zeppelin. And since Plant explored a variety of international folk styles as he and his Zep' mates made their mystical, hedonistic blues/metal, an interest in Krauss's brand of 'grass isn't so inconceivable as it might first appear.
On Raising Sand, the not-so-odd couple could pass for father and daughter in the black & white photography gracing the deluxe packaging (Digipak in an O-card). Sonically, however, they are peers who bring out fresh nuances in each other's voices. Since theirs are voices that many listeners may already have pegged unfairly as cliches (Plant's howling cosmicness, Krauss' angelic ruralness), the surprises are sweet and rewarding.
Much of the payoff comes from producer T Bone Burnett. His approach behind the board and with the A-list players he's gathered for the occasion has its recent precedents: his own latest solo album from last year and his work on the last couple of longplayers for his ex-wife, Sam Phillips. It's Americana rootsy, yet forcefully spacey. A country/dub/folk amalgam? Whatever it is, in this setting among these voices with these songs, Burnett has reached a zenith he'd be fortunate to match on future outing with other singers.
As producer, Burnett also took chief responsibility for song selection. His obscurantistic interests and effort to pair the duo with songs not commonly associated with anyone else leads to some sweet, startling choices. Phillips contributes a roundabout tribute to gospel/R&B firebrand Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and forgotten soul, country and art-pop nuggets by luminaries such as Townes Van Zant, The Byrds' Gene Clark, Mel Tillis, Tom Waits and Naomi Neville augment both Plant's and Krauss's duets and their solo turns. Plant excels on a piece he co-wrote, "Please Read the Letter," sounding much like the stomping, high lonesome tale of woe his old band never got around to recording with fiddle and mandolin
And though the overall mood is somber and ominous, there's enough variation and humor within the forlornness to make for consistently compelling listening. Their take on "Rich Woman" finds them fronting a track that sounds like Bo Didley taking a stab at Dick Dales' surf guitar. Plant has mischievous glimmer in his voice as he sings of how he fell in love with a "Fortune Teller," and he and Krauss whoop it up on an Everly brothers rockabilly knockout, "Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)."
Conversely, Krauss's take on "Through The Morning, Through The Night" could be the most beautifully sad recording of the year. That she doesn't change the gender pronouns from the song's original male viewpoint, as she also does on "Let Love Be Your Lesson," adds to the alienation (especially since she's a married woman, and not like Rosie O'Donnel is). Plant manifests similar sense of romantic adriftness in a mutely angry manner on "Nothin'" effectively as his cohort's more downcast turns.
As if to nod to the Christianity Krauss and Burnett share, the album concludes with the two dueting on Doc Watson's "Long Journey Home." The story of a man singing to his dying beloved mingles hope with heartbreak as the protagonist loses his spouse but knows that she's in a better place.
Masterful as everything here is, one may almost fear that the forces of commerce (Raising Sand debuted at #2 on Billboard's country and overall pop album sales charts) and friendship may reconvene the album's principals for a sequel. Can Burnett capture such lovely lightning twice? Even if he doesn't, he caught it but good here.
Jamie Lee Rake