Who would have thought the pairing of rock and bluegrass legends would have produced an album so subtly evocative? That's what you end up with on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's new work "Raising Sand."
Plant, the one-time Led Zeppelin front-man whose fire-alarm vocals launched a thousand imitators (Foreigner, Bad Company, Boston, Def Leppard, AC/DC...) re-invents himself on this album as a wise specter, bringing his formative blues and rock experience to the table with the venerable Krauss, a twenty-time Grammy award winning luminary from the bluegrass-country side of the tracks. But perhaps the real genius behind the album is producer T-Bone Burnett who conceived the pairing of the two singers in the first place. All of it comes together wonderfully well, even for a country/bluegrass ignoramus like myself.
Krauss's characteristic breathy vibrato-less singing is featured on the album. Her vocals come across as angelic, but Plant, once a devil, is right there with her to offer up air-tight harmonies which float in and out of your head like a fall breeze, precisely the emotion the album wishes to create. Their voices run together through your finger tips like the sand in the album's name. Everything is put together in a low-key, almost dreamlike mosaic of western, Celtic, and bluegrass influences and although I am no long-lived fan of any of those genres it is not difficult to appreciate their brilliance on this album.
One of my favorite songs is track two, "Killing the Blues," which rolls across your mind like a lose tumbleweed. Plant and Krauss's harmonies are so soft, so unobtrusive, all you have to do is close your eyes and the images pop to life all on their own.
Leaves were falling / Just like embers
In colors red and gold / they set us on fire
Burning just like a moonbeam / in our eyes
Somebody said they saw me
Swinging the world by the tail
Bouncing over a white cloud
Killing the Blues
The brilliant "Stick with me, Baby" also features a suburb set of vocals from both singers.
Everbody's been talking / they say our love wasn't real
That it would soon be over / that's not the way I feel
But I don't worry, honey / let them say what they may
Come on and stick with me baby
We'll find a way
Yes we'll find a way
And if those words sound familiar to you then maybe you once heard that song on an old Everly Brothers album. That's right.
There are few up-beat numbers on the album, but one of them is track five, "Gone, Gone, Gone" which was released as a single. There is also "Let your Loss be your Lesson" a rockabilly tune that is simply too much fun to deny.
Most of the songs are, of course, about lost love and longing. Krauss herself once said about her song selection that "if they make you feel like crap, you oughta do 'em." If she wants to select songs that everyone can relate to, this album has them but they are displayed here in hues many typical music listeners will never be exposed to. This album does not beat you over the head, but takes you down into the heartache one sublime song at a time and when it's over you want to take the trip all over again, this time with some Southern Comfort in-hand.
I could not help but think of the amusing juxtaposition between Plant, a rock icon, and Krauss, a Dolly Parton-esque belle from Decatur, Illinois. Krauss began studying classical violin when she was five years old. Plant was on his way to becoming an accountant when he became engrossed in the blues. When you put these disparate characters together what they create is an amazing display of intonation and imagery. It is almost enough to make you believe in the all-transforming power of love itself, to bridge the wide gap between an old blues rocker from England, and a fiddle playing beauty from middle America. If they can do it together, it would seem anything is possible. And that is their genius.