Robert Plant

Band Of Joy

The claim has screamed from a hundred reviews: that Robert Plant had accidentally discovered a magic while mining a rich seam of Americana with Alison Krauss. The resultant affair – the multi-million selling, Grammy grabbing Raising Sand – was certainly a fine affair, zinging with chemistry and respectfully balanced. However, it is absurd to claim that as any kind of beginning. Perhaps it was actually Krauss’ lightness of touch that gave that album its mainstream appeal – no put-down intended. For, as everyone with a passing interest in Plant’s lengthy post-Zep career knows, the magic was already in evidence on Plant’s album ventures with Strange Sensation in the form of 2002’s exquisite Dreamland and the equally effective Mighty ReArranger three years later. The art of intelligent, tasteful cherry-picking from that inexhaustible ocean is a time-honoured Plant tradition and not some fanciful accident. Indeed, you can drive that wedge of influence right back to the eternally underrated Led Zeppelin III, where folk and country tinges battle so effectively with the more iconic explosive blues-rock.

The tenderness, understanding and care in which Plant approaches this task is arguably evident from the aborted sessions of the Plant/Krauss follow-up album. Despite – or perhaps because of – myriad commercial pressures, those sessions failed to produce the essential chemistry and the two friends agree to battle another day. From that attempt, however, the root of Band Of Joy was firmly planted. Echoes of that and, indeed, of Raising Sand stretch across the broad canvass of Band of Joy. It is a continuum and, one day, a Robert Plant box set will mark out a particularly adventurous journey, full of all the splendid ‘small’ music that exists in lost enclaves… and matched with those songs from America’s underbelly. How odd it is to note how few ageing mega-rockers have shown the necessary courage to follow such a genuinely eclectic muse.

If anything, Band of Joy is Plant’s most strikingly beautiful album to date; a bag of curios misted gently by co-producer Buddy Miller, who had added spice as guitarist on the Raising Sand tour. Here, his work is one of embellishment, allowing songs to float naturally to the surface. Nothing is forced. Nothing is over-illuminated. Even on the comparatively rocky opener, the Los Lobos song ‘Angel Dance’, the Bo Diddley chop-beat is allowed to simmer rather than dominate. The fell is instantly gorgeous, though. The song is, at once – and how did they achieve this? – driven and languid. Listen hard and it’s difficult to decide whether you are at a rock concert or in a dreamy meadow.

To some, track two – Richard Thompson’s ‘House of Cards’ – is the only ‘grating’ moment on an otherwise effortless collection. I disagree and enjoy the jolt. The track is archetypal Thompson: old English and yet contemporary urban at the same time. Plant’s superior voice obviously lifts the song; there are hints of Seth Lakemen here and, for once, that is not a bad thing. ‘House of Cards’ also arrives complete with a spine tingling flat-topped chorus that is nothing short of joyous. Grating moment? Not a bit of it. I played it on repeat four times while gliding my car – significant this is – through Prestwich, North Manchester. Somehow it all seems to fall neatly in place.

If one needed a psychedelic banjo stomp infused with the blues, then ‘Central Two Nine’ fits that particular bill. For me, it is a little too covered with chicken feed and fake crap. I don’t complain too much because the following song, ‘Silver Rider’, is a languid joy. An intense boom through a dark grey night, it’s the work of one of Plant’s current favourites, Low. There’s another Low song, too – the Minnesota group’s ‘Monkey’ is also included – and both are flavoured by a quasi-religious darkness which Plant skilfully skips across, lightening the mood with typical vocal aplomb.

Those two tracks serve to bookend three love-drenched wanders through just about every emotive tug known to man or woman. The first two are soul outings and blessed in their simplicity. ‘You Can’t Buy My Love’ screams from a late 60s soul disco and has a Beatles-esque resonance, while ‘Falling in Love Again’ owns a beauteous gospel heart. After this, ‘The Only Sound That Matters’, which would have made a glorious title for the album, is another cleverly picked gem; originally from Nashville’s Milton Mapes, it’s arguably the albums pivotal moment. From here on in, the guard is dropped, the borders are expanded and everything becomes a touch random. Of the remaining quartet of songs, I’m most warmly attracted to the sexy, perky ‘Cindy, I’ll Marry You Someday’, which sees Plant’s jaunty vocals sparring with chopping banjo. "She took me to the parlour and cooled me with her fan," rasps Plant, returning to the dark sexuality that once made him the most famous frontman on the planet. Never one to dodge a challenge, he even steps into Jack White territory on ‘Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down’ which actually echoes back to the 1930’s and, like The White Stripes, embraces the art of embellishing the antique and re-establishing it in the contemporary idiom. This is also reflected in the closing track, ‘Even This Shall Pass Away’, which sounds like something you might chance upon in the Document Records antique blues catalogue.

By the time you reach these closing strains, it dawns on you that you’re no no longer listening to Raising Sand Part Two. Indeed, Band of Joy (incidentally, the title was swiped from one of Plant’s pre Led Zep days, where cold nights in Transit vans and high adventure would rule the activities) provides us with a lengthy journey through a lost and stark Americana. From start to finish it’s an orchidaceous trek and, like Dreamland, is an album that’s simply peerless and offers numerous possibilities to discover; I need to find out more about Low and Milton Mapes, for starters.

Plant’s next move, he has hinted, will be an album built from entirely original material. Even the thought of that is courageous, for this is such a rich seam. Listening to it over and over, one often feels that – for the moment anyway – it really is the only sound that matters.


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