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Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Raising Sand Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 December 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8.5
sound:    7
released:    2007
label:    Rounder
reviewer:    Charles Andrews

ImageHow about calling it Raising Doubts? How about Built on Sand? How much bad salsa, spicy burritos and vodka shots resulted in this bright idea?

Robert Plant, king of the rock screamers. Would Led Zeppelin top so many lists as the best rock band ever if Plant's unique vocal signature wasn't written so large over the biggest, badest anthems ever to come roaring out of Marshall amps? Did we ever for a moment question that the voice was too high, too pretty to power such titanic blues bastardizations? So over-the-top powerful and unconditional, he redefined the top.

Alison Krauss, queen of bluegrass. Hey, there's no girls in bluegrass!? Hardly none. Well, okay, honey, play your fiddle over there in the back and look pretty. What? You want to sing? Bluegrass ain't about singin', sweetheart. And besides, you're only 16. Oh. People seem to like it. You seem to have remade and re-popularized the genre, in your own image. They've given you 20 Grammys, more than Mariah, Dolly, Britney, Carole King, Diana Ross, Peggy Lee and Beverly Sills combined.

But that sweet, pure, innocent-sounding voice wouldn't even walk past the dark alley leading to rock and roll. And Plant, for all his respect, would be dismissed as going softheaded if he ever suggested that maybe he could sing … you know, country.

Oh, I see. It came out of one of those all-star get-together recordings where Krauss and Plant had a few moments together and were just foolin' around vocally and thought, well, you know, that didn't sound too bad …
But seriously, what do you think the reaction was when someone in the biz heard about the idea to put those two voices together? Lots of blank stares and silence, I'd guess, maybe a few disbelieving snickers, maybe even a rude Are you nuts? or two.

I had heard of it and thought, sounds weird and interesting, why not? (I'm always open to the unlikely), but I'll tell you what my reaction was when I heard first one cut, then another, and another sneaked onto the radio in advance of the release: I thought it sounded amazing, strangely stunningly wonderful. Really different - no, unique. Brilliant. The most striking and lovely music of any kind, in ages. I couldn't wait for the album.

Then I got it, and was bored before I got three-fourths through it.

With its more-than-murky instrumentation, is this the poster album for the case for singles/downloads/MP3 players-phones-etc.? (Something I'm terribly against, as an advocate for complete albums and quality sound.)

Now, a dozen listens through, I'm warming to it as a whole. A little. Song by song, it is pretty consistent, and consistently terrific. Krauss's lead on “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” may actually make you cry, it's that gorgeous; her “Trampled Rose” is right up there, too. They trade off individual leads and duets song by song, though on the duets Plant's voice tends to dominate slightly, and it's often hard to tell which of them is taking the high part.

If “Nothin'” were on a Robert Plant solo album, it would probably be his best attempt yet to turn down the electricity and let his singing take a different, more detailed path. Though most of Raising Sand moves like anvils are tied to every drawn-out note, P&K's take on the Everly Brothers' “Gone Gone Gone” moves out pretty good, and Plant even throws in a few Zep-era moans and scats. “Let Your Loss be Your Lesson” is the only other one you can actually tap a foot or snap a finger to, but it's a bit formulaic and inconsequential, in the context of what else is here.

But now it's time to mention the third personality, possibly the most important one as far as the end result: producer-guitarist T Bone Burnett. He's the one who mucked this up so giftedly. He dropped in only flashes of bluegrass and country, despite Alison's fiddle, some pedal steel, banjo, stand-up bass, dobro and autoharp and the substantial country roots of Norman Blake and Riley Baugus in the stellar band he assembled, but he steered even further away from what anyone would call rock. The notion both P & K put forth was that they wanted to emphasize their voices, and go somewhere they'd never even thought to go, and T Bone was the man to do it. His weirdness has the deepest respect in the business, and I've got even more respect now for all three of them for putting out something so different than what anyone could've possibly expected, and so dark and mucky that probably nobody's going to buy it, stars be damned.

So what happens? This has got to be the strangest album ever to enter the charts at #2. Rounder, the clunky, stalwart label of low-profile folk and
hillbilly, must be turning cartwheels and buying Porsches.

I've loved T Bone since his Alpha Band days, and he's proved his vision and cajones emphatically, once again, with Raising Sand. He takes these great musicians he's assembled, and tells them I'm going to use your skill and genius to the limit, but I don't want you to play the sounds you usually play. I want scrunch up the fiddle and stand-up and dobro until it sounds squawkingly electronic, I want to expand and mute and distort until you're not sure what instrument you're hearing, and do it in one percent time.

That's what's going to cradle these two angelic voices. Combined with the lyrics, this is going to be music so despondently desolate that Charlie Manson will put it on infinite replay. (Krauss has said she looks for tunes she can relate to, and "if they make you feel like crap, you oughta do 'em." Mission accomplished.) The odd thing about the range of mostly obscure songs chosen, from writers Tom Waits to Sam Philips, Page-Plant to Gene Clark, Mel Tillis to Towns Van Zandt, is that it barely matters what the song is. Burnett, Krauss and Plant so twist them in knots that the songs themselves take a limo-length back seat to their vocal and instrumental treatments. Here, it's the sound, not the song, that counts.

So maybe you're okay with that. I am, when the results are as gripping as
Raising Sand. While I'm still a bit put off by the album as a whole, I know with certainty I will hear these individual songs years or decades from now, and swoon. And isn't that what we look for in great music?

Dark. Dank. Dense. Slower than a kid walking home with a bad report card. Baleful. Clammy. Opaque. Mysterious. Sinister as a faint noise down a dark alley in a bad neighborhood. Morose. Moody. Atmospheric. Thick. Impenetrable. And with two of the prettiest, clearest, sweetest, most nuanced intertwined male and female voices singing exquisitely that you'll find this side of heaven or New Orleans.

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