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Robert Plant - Raising Sand (with Alison Krauss) CD (album) cover

RAISING SAND (WITH ALISON KRAUSS)

Robert Plant

 

Crossover Prog

3.19 | 33 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
3 stars Say what you will about the Grammy Awards in general (they can be laughably superficial) but when it comes to deciding upon whom they'll bestow their hallowed Album-of-the-Year prize in front of a global audience the academy's voters are, more often than not, downright quirky. Look at a brief sample of recipients: The slick "Toto IV," Paul Simon's curious "Graceland," the MTV-hosted Tony Bennett "Unplugged," Bob Dylan's gritty "Time Out of Mind," Steely Dan's sarcastic "Two Against Nature" and Herbie Hancock's delicate "River: The Joni Letters." I acknowledge that none of those are truly progressive as such but they definitely aren't what I'd call mainstream fare, either. Now add to that eclectic list this "Raising Sand" CD and it becomes obvious that massive sales figures and/or enormous popularity have little to do with an album emerging as the final winner. That in itself is enough to reluctantly lend the Grammy establishment a modicum of respect but sometimes you gotta wonder what herbal essences the members of that exclusive club have been smoking in their limos.

When I first caught wind that Robert Plant and Alison Krauss were teaming up for a joint project I was incredulous. It made about as much sense as David Bowie and Bing Crosby getting together (Don't roll your eyes, kids. It really happened. Google it if you don't believe me). Yet stranger things have transpired on this fallen planet so I tried to keep an open mind about the results. I must admit that between these two artists I prefer the cute-as-a- button Alison to the Dumbledore-in-training Robby and was hoping that the latter didn't prove to be a bad influence on the former. I don't give an audible expulsion of intestinal gas for 99.9% of what happens in the dull, pandering C&W universe but high-quality Bluegrass music can be very intriguing and Krauss is one of that genre's shining stars with good reason. The girl is gifted. The fortunate thing is that neither one of this unlikely duo played it safe by clinging to their usual forte, daring to step out of their comfort zones to mold a sound that is, while not particularly spectacular or earth-shaking, admirably unique. But Album-of-the-Year? Really? I would've cast my ballot for Porcupine Tree's "Fear of a Blank Planet" that season but they didn't ask for my opinion. Idiots.

They begin with producer T Bone Burnett's tremolo-heavy guitar reverberating off the studio walls, creating an uneasy atmosphere of misdirection for "Rich Woman," a relic from the mid 50s. The liquid track comes off like some kind of cultish, darlings-of-college-radio, beatnik indie group instead of a radical mixture of styles from two established artisans. I bet if you put this on for an unsuspecting friend and told them it was a web download of "Esther & Mordecai," a rebel Amish couple from Pennsylvania (backed by the burly Barnabas on drums and the waif-like Naomi on upright bass) they'd probably swallow your fib with a shrug. While the song's cool ambience catches you off guard at first it suffers from merely rumbling along, not having any highs or lows to break the monotony. However, the next cut is a gem. I first heard a cover of Rowland Salley's "Killing the Blues" on one of John Prine's LPs and have loved the tune ever since. It's sorta Country-on-Quaaludes but very accommodating on overcast days when your mood matches the color of the sky. The lyrics are killer. Lines such as "I am guilty of something/I hope you never do/'cause there is nothing sadder/than losing yourself in love" are cruelly mocked by the chorus' false optimism of "Somebody said they saw me/swinging the world by the tail/bouncing over a white cloud/killing the blues." It's the kind of song they would've had to try real hard to screw up and they don't.

The odd aura they build around Sam Phillip's "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" is downright macabre and makes it another highlight of the proceedings. They move deftly between minor and major keys, the dampened drums give it a funeral march feel and it serves as a great example of Krauss' ghostly, ethereal voice that must be heard to believe. "Darkness held me like a friend/when love wore off," she croons. The bare-bones instrumentation they employ for Gene Clark's droll "Polly Come Home" plods underneath Plant singing in his softest mode as the tight harmonies fill in the open spaces but the abject despondence conveyed is so dank and labored it becomes too oppressive to enjoy. They must've realized they had a foot in the grave at this juncture because they wisely jump directly into an up-tempo rockabilly motif for the Everly Brothers' "Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)" in an attempt to resuscitate the floundering patient. Despite their fevered CPR it establishes little more than a slight pulse due to its lack of anything exciting. Been there, done that. Ho hum.

Alison retreats into more recognizable surroundings for "Through the Morning, Through the Night" in that it's a typical bluegrass waltz and offers those not familiar with her art a glimpse of what makes her tick. She and Robert achieve a smooth harmony blend with their voices but the whiny steel guitar is a nuisance. "Please Read the Letter" is an arresting tune borne out of Plant's uneven reunion with Jimmy Page and it fits in well. Krauss gets a chance to fiddle around a bit yet her contribution is uncharacteristically pedestrian. However, the track's driving second half supplies a much-needed injection of energy. The album's only prog-related moment comes in their skillful rendition of "Trampled Rose" by the inimitable Tom Waits. The verses teeter seamlessly between 5/4 and 4/4 time signatures and Alison's angelic pipes are a perfect overlay for this strange little tune. Robert snores quietly on the sidelines as a toy piano, pump organ and Dobro create a mystical fog that clusters around the acerbic lyric content. "Long way going to get my medicine/sky's the autumn grey of a lonely wren" she coos.

Plant then rises to man the microphone for the classic "Fortune Teller." It's pretty straight forward with no surprises but Robert sounds like he's having fun, at least. Next is a Mel Tillis-penned C&W ditty entitled "Stick With Me Baby." Pleasant but instantly forgotten. Just when things are getting stale they perform "Nothin'" by the late troubadour Townes Van Zant. Initially I wondered, "Who invited Bob Fripp to the session?" No, it's not him, but T Bone's combination of dense guitar distortion layered atop devilish banjo and fiddle attaches fluorescent neon onto this dirge-like number. Plant's restrained vocal delivery gives it a dynamic dimension and what could've been a bore ends up grabbing you and pulling you in. "Being born is going blind/and bowin' down a thousand times/to echoes strung on pure temptation," he whispers.

"Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson" has filler written all over it. It's a nondescript R&B-tinged deal that Creedence Clearwater could've done just as well. It has all the substance of Styrofoam peanuts and should have died in rehearsal. They finish their short-lived relationship with a sweet traditional air, "Your Long Journey," that's enhanced by a sleek autoharp, subtle banjo and acoustic guitar. This quaint slice of Americana is presented with classy respect and their silky mesh of vocal timbres creates an unanticipated state of grace.

I've read that, despite favorable acceptance of their musical marriage by the public and their peers, their attempt to create more of the same early in 2010 failed and odds of a reunion are now slim to none. Just as well, I say. This cooperative effort yielded music that leans too far into C&W territory too often for my taste and my admiration for it is limited to six of the thirteen cuts so I'm not anxious for a rematch. I appreciate the risks they took by diverting from what was expected of them (a happy-go-lucky, frivolous hillbilly romp & stomp, perhaps?) and for taking on some rather dark material but while the critics and connoisseurs of chic slobbered shamelessly all over this disc I find it only slightly above average. I'm rarely in agreement with the majority, though. As Sly Stone put it, "Different strokes for different folks and so on and so on and Scooby dooby doo." I couldn't have put it better. 2.7 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |

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