The Ones I Rarely Play: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Raising Sand

I have never been a Led Zeppelin fan.
True, I have it on my conscience that there were a couple of years there in the mid-Seventies that I could listen to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ with pleasure. And I am capable of hearing some riffs without running and hiding, if not actually the whole song. Still, if forced into a corner and told not to come out until I nominated a Led Zeppelin song to play, the only one I could choose would be ‘D’ye mak’er’: yes, the one where Zep went cod-reggae to the horror, disbelief and disgust of millions of their fans (I extrapolate from the unanimously angry response of everyone else in the Sixth Form).
So it’s not a surprise that my collection is not flooded out with Robert Plant at his powerful ‘best’. On the other hand, I do have something of a liking for Alison Krauss, especially her astonishing interpretation of ‘When you say nothing at all’, a song that, to my continuing disbelief, has not become the standard it should be, not even after a commercially successful cove by Ronan ‘Pub Singer’ Keating.
Krauss has an exceptionally sweet voice, and is no mean fiddler, leading many people to regard her as one of the leading exponents of bluegrass music. So the combination of her voice with that of ‘Percy’ Plant is a seriously oddball pairing.
And whilst I might not necessarily like Robert Plant’s music in general terms, I admire his refusal to settle for easy options and lazy nostalgia.
It’s obvious that he coud make millions on Zeppelin reunion tours, and common knowledge that he’s getting seriously up Jimmy Page’s nose by not doing so, but Plant, like every musician worthy of respect, is exploring music with a view to what interests him most, not what increases his bank balance the most.
Raising Sand is an intriguing album. Vocally, it’s very much Plant’s baby. His is the dominant voice, and Krauss’s sweeter tones are the minor part of harmonies, even though, with rare exceptions, Plant uses none of the power that used to be at his command.
Nor is Krauss competing: she understands how to complement his voice, and is content with a couple of solo songs to assert herself. And Plant’s refusal to extend himself is not a condescension: he’s exploring the softer, subtler uses of his voice. Even in the most driving track, the single ‘Gone Gone Gone (Done Me Wrong)’ he remains within himself, and his performances are all the better for it.
Musically, the album operates in a zone very adjacent to country music, but with more of a rock feel, and several tracks don a rockabilly coat to infuse the music with rhythm and a degree of heat. It’s primarily an acoustic album, and the band sees rhythm as its primary duty. The melodies are carried in the voices and the music is there to create an underpinning. They are the footing, and Plant and Krauss sing above them, almost distant.
It’s a cool, dry album, and my favourite track is the astonishingly brittle and tense ‘Please Read the Letter’, in which both singers plead with each other to read a letter they have written, a letter that, if read and acted upon, might save a relationship being drawn apart. The musical tension, the sense of withheld power in both voices, maintaining a control that at any moment may be overcome: it’s an exhausting, haunting piece of work.
The collaboration was a one-off, but Plant and Krauss toured (not always to happy results, I am led to believe…) and there are some clips on YouTube of the pair duetting on Zeppelin songs like ‘When the Levee Breaks’ which make me wish they’d at least recorded a few out-takes for a ‘Director’s Cut’ version of this.
It’s a good album to have, a good mood and a good groove for the right frame of mind.

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