Unpredictable Plant: Former Led Zeppelin lead continues to defy expectations
Coming off Raising Sand, his Best Album Grammy-grabbing collaboration with Alison Krauss that recast Robert Plant as an expert excavator of musical Americana, it would be natural to expect him to follow a similar path on his follow-up project, Band of Joy.
More evidence to this theorem would seem to come from the fact that he has surrounded himself with several of the most critically respected figures on the traditional country/bluegrass scene to record the album.
But the eclectic path that Plant has rumbled down in the three decades or so since the end of Led Zeppelin has never been very predictable. From his probing, profound solo albums to relaxed one-offs like The Honeydrippers to his radical recasting of Zep tunes during his '90s reunion with Jimmy Page, he has always seemed less interested in fulfilling expectations than in chasing down new sounds or bringing his own touch to old ones.
It shouldn’t come as a complete shock then when Plant takes all of these Nashville pros and sets them loose on material from all over creation. The first clue that the singer has cast his net far wider than country oldies comes from the fact that the group covers not one, but two songs by the fringe indie group Low, known for their atmospheric, slow-motion pace.
Don’t fret that these two songs might be out of their comfort zone, because Plant and company nail them. Patty Griffin, his female foil this time around, provides ethereal backing on the haunting “Silver Rider,” and then she and Plant wring every last ounce of dangerous desire from “Monkey.” On both songs, Buddy Miller, who co-produced with Plant, churns out elegiac guitar solos that take the music into the stratosphere.
Band of Joy also utilizes multi-instrumentalist Darrell Scott to great effect. Like Miller and Griffin, a respected singer-songwriter in his own right, Scott’s weeping pedal steel and doo-wop backing vocals expertly complement Plant’s balladeer turn on “I’m Falling In Love Again,” while his banjo and mandolin are also heavily featured throughout.
It’s to this album’s credit that, while the material is varied, the overall flow is smooth. Songs by well-known modern artists like Richard and Linda Thompson and Los Lobos sit comfortably next to those of relatively obscure artists like the country band Milton Mapes. Plant’s expert taste keeps it all together.
The band also recasts traditionals in eye-opening ways, like the eerie spin on “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” that makes it sound like the good guys are losing, or the rollicking version of “Even This Shall Pass Away,” which finds Plant boogeying with drummer Marco Giovino as if the endless march of time were the funkiest thing imaginable.
On Raising Sand, Plant and Krauss were like one entity, and while it was a lovely sound, their distinct personalities were sometimes hard to distinguish. But here Plant’s voice is far more front and center, and his performances are uniformly excellent. There is a slight fragility to that once fearsome voice these days, but it suits this material well.
His take on Townes Van Zandt’s wistful “Harm’s Swift Way,” set to an arrangement so tight it’s almost power pop, is a master class in interpretive singing.
Will Plant find himself back on the Grammy podium again with this? My guess is no, as that timid bunch of voters might have a hard time wrapping their head around these less readily accessible tunes. But this album might actually be more consistent than Raising Sand, which sometimes got stuck on retro autopilot.
Band of Joy might be a bit of a jolt to fans of its predecessor, but the fact that Robert Plant keeps striving to improve upon greatness should surprise no one.
Plant performing "Satan, your kingdom must come down":