Zeppelin? We don't need no stinking zeppelin!
Over the course of time, there have been arguments as to which member of supergroup quartet Led Zeppelin was the most important one. Some say that John Bonham’s drumming was parallel to none—that he could bash harder and stronger than any other drummer (quite true). Some would say that the quiet man, John Paul Jones, was most valuable for his bass and keyboard work, and his behind-the-scenes arrangements which helped shape Zep’s mighty sound (also quite true). And of course, Jimmy Page is revered as one of the most important and influential guitarists in rock and roll history (again, quite true). But what gave Led Zeppelin its voice (literally and figuratively) was lead singer Robert Plant. His wails could alter brain cells for life, yet he could also sing as delicately as a feather, and make it all count. (For those who want to argue Page vs. Plant, all I need to say is two words: The Firm. Argument over, case closed.)
Since the demise of the mighty Zep in 1980, Plant has gone on a varied musical course, from stylin’ with the Honeydrippers to dropping solo albums such as Pictures at Eleven and The Principle of Moments, even using guest drummers ranging from Phil Collins to Richie Hayward (Little Feat) to Barriemore Barlow (Jethro Tull). After a few releases which pleased critics but bored fans, Plant retreated until 1988, when he released Now and Zen, where he grew comfortable enough to refer to his former band in his music and song selections on the subsequent tour. There was even a period where he reunited with Page (but not Jones; the two were always at odds). Plant’s career continued to fluctuate, despite the excellent Dreamland, released three years ago. But with the release of Mighty Rearranger, Plant finally appears comfortable in his old skin, while clinging tightly to his newer muse.
With one listen to these dozen songs, one can play the “Spot the Zeppelin” influence to the point of making this review five pages long, so we’ll take a pass. Let’s just say that anyone who loved the Zep will be having cataclysmic orgasmic interludes whilst cranking this sucker up to 10. But it sounds as though Plant isn’t concerned about the comparisons to his first band of note—in fact, he seems to embrace the concept, when in past, he would run away as far as he could from such statements. This album rocks harder than any previous Plant solo entity, and probably can give some of the later Led Zep works a run for the money. Now, this is not to say that guitarists Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson are the second coming of Mr. Page—that wouldn’t be fair—but it is safe to say that both can clearly hold their own for what is asked of them here. And credit Plant to realize that he’s working with a different cast of characters who are working to give him that “Zep classic sound” without disregarding Plant’s love of Indian influence (touches of Moroccan influence abound). The same goes for drummer Clive Deamer—his drum technique is both hard and strong, but he doesn’t try to overtake Bonham; he just uses Bonham’s influence to make the songs work. And with one exception, the songs work in one form or another.
Start with the opener “Another Tribe”. It’s a slice of Moroccan influence (John Baggott’s keyboard work is slippery and sensual). Speaking of sensual, Plant’s vocals are as soft and supple as he’s ever used them—and exceedingly clear, too. “Shine It All Around’’ cooks itself from a slow percolation to a near over boil before the steam drops down back to a simmer, only to rise again. Here, bassist Billy Fuller shines. Up next is “Freedom Fries”, with an angular beat that goes back to the days of “Custard Pie or “Black Dog”. (Sorry—that’ll be my only song reference to specific songs of the mighty Zep.)
The song most talked about on the album is “Tin Pan Valley” for Plant’s not-so-subtle dig at those he perceives to be heir to his throne. (“My peers may flirt with cabaret, some fake the rebel yell, me I’m moving up to higher ground, I must escape their hell’‘) “All the King’s Horses” is just like it sounds—a fairy tale about love. “The Enchanter” combines blues guitar with Eastern Indian rhythms for a nice mix. And though Plant’s vocals are at the top of the mix, he lays back enough to let the music come through. The entire album is like that, which shows that Plant has the confidence and trust with his band to keep it on a cooperative, rather than a competitive level.
“Takamba” also has an angular beat to go along with some rockin’ guitar work and several shifts in tempo. It sounds like a mish-mash on paper, but it’s a different story when it pours out of the speakers. “Dancing in Heaven” is pleasant enough, but sounds like a George Harrison outtake. “Somebody Knocking” is tabla central; it’s not the strongest song on the disc, but not the weakest, either. “Let the Four Winds Blow” is a jazzy-styled number where the guitar and vocals sound like a very familiar old song (no, it’s not Led Zeppelin, but it’s Paul Revere and the Raiders’s “Indian Reservation”). And sorry—they don’t scream out “Cherokee people!”.
The last two songs are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. The title song is the strongest cut here, with a bouncy beat and a byplay between a piano and an organ sounding like a flute. Mix that with some guitar work that came from a Clint Eastwood western, and you have a song that you’ll have on the “repeat” key on your CD or MP3 player. And as for the finale, let’s just say that “Brother Ray” is over eight minutes of psychedelic trippiness that serves no true purpose other than to supposedly honor Ray Charles. Plant would have been better off to cover a Charles tune straightforwardly.
Even with the strength of Dreamland, it’s hard to know what to expect when Robert Plant gets the jones (no pun intended) to record another album. A positive telling clue was that he used just about all of the same personnel that appeared in Dreamland, so you knew this had a chance to be decent. Well, it’s beyond decent. Plant put out an album that sticks out its chest in pride of who he was in Led Zeppelin without compromising his love of the Eastern influences that are his usual trademark. With a mix of harder-edged and softer tunes, Plant has gone to both extremes, and his experience has taught him that he doesn’t need to scream his vocals to have power and intensity. The musicianship is tighter than a New York subway car at rush hour, and yet there’s an airy, relaxed feel in the groove. Zep lovers and Plant skeptics, Mighty Rearranger is your ‘70s flashback nirvana. Robert Plant has learned that he can look fondly back at the past while keeping his feet planted firmly in the present and future. Now all that’s needed to complete the picture is a black-light poster and a lava lamp.