[3 December 2007]
Ex-Led Zep lead singer Robert Plant has moaned about looking for a good Kentucky woman ever since the ‘60s. Country belle Alison Krauss may not originally come from the Bluegrass state, but she has made that music her own ever since she was 12 years old and won her first fiddle playing championship. While the hard rocking British daddy and innocent sounding waif from the Land of Lincoln may seem an unlikely pair, their two high-pitched, emotive voices fit together well to create a distinctively satisfying album of rootsy American music.
Much of the success must be credited to producer T. Bone Burnett, whose idea sparked this project, and the crackerjack band he put together. The instrumentalists include avant garde experimentalist Marc Ribot on electric guitar, banjo and Dobro, old time music maven Mike Seeger on autoharp, and legendary string man Norman Blake on acoustic guitar. These players and others create a foggy atmospheric backdrop upon which Plant and Krauss ply their sonic trades to full effect. The music shimmers and shakes as the duo provides the listener with solid melodic lines to hang on to.
Plant and Krauss sing some songs together in one voice, such as the gospel-inflected love ballad “Your Long Journey”. When the two sing about walking hand in hand in heaven in the family of the Lord, the effect is truly celestial. They also know how to get down and dirty together on tunes like the bluesy “Rich Woman” that just reeks of sex. One can feel the earth move when they simultaneously croon “I got the honey” in throaty voices.
The two take turns singing lead on other songs with interesting results. Plant handles most of the vocal chores on the old R&B chestnut “Fortune Teller” as Krauss chants a seductive “ooh-ooh-ooh” overtop. This gives the music a more spiritual than sensual feeling than is usually the case, the opposite of what one might expect from when a man sings lead. Krauss takes the solo on Tom Waits’ spooky tale “Trampled Rose”. She turns the self-pitying narrator who did who knows what to her former lover into an empathetic figure through the pain in her voice. Plant understands enough to stay out of the way except provide a vocal accent here and there. The other songs, which include two Gene Clark compositions, an obscure Everly Brothers rocker, a straight-up Mel Tillis love song, a weepy Townes Van Zandt ode and other assorted tasty gems, juxtapose together nicely so that one never knows what will follow next.
Plant began his foray into the musical history books back in the late ‘60s when, for the most part, country and rock and roll seemed to be as diametrically opposed as the proverbial hawks and doves they represented in terms of the Vietnam War that was going on. What passes for mainstream country music on today’s radio would have been called rock and roll back in the day because of its heavy use of drums and bass, salacious lyrics, and snarky attitudes. Krauss’ folk-bluegrass style evokes a simpler time before the “turbulent decade”. Somehow, this unusual combination of genre singers works. The melding of Plant’s hard rock vocals and Krauss’ sweet sound requires them both to stretch their talents in unexpected ways. The new album’s triumph lies in the fact that they both seem to do this so effortlessly.