In 2007, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss teamed up for what appeared to be a rather odd pairing. The Led Zeppelin singer had been exploring roots music, but he still seemed like an unlikely partner for the bluegrass superstar. The match turned out to be perfect, though, with their Raising Sand becoming a commercial and critical success and winning several Grammys. The anticipated follow-up never materialized, as the subsequent recording sessions didn’t work out. At long last, the duo reunites for another run, and while Raise the Roof doesn’t capture the energy of its predecessor, it does maintain a high level of artistry.
Joined again by producer T Bone Burnett, the duo emphasizes artistry, and background listening won’t reveal the intricacy of the craft on Raise the Roof. The album stays relatively placid throughout, but it revels in small flourishes – a guitar quickly appearing there, a background vocal sneaking in over here. The attention to detail pays off careful listening, counteracting the album’s one downside: it can feel a little flat at points. Plant and Krauss invest in their songs, but the steady midtempos and frequent low-key performances and can belie the honed technique given to each of these numbers.
The songs invested in aid the album. As before, the pair don’t choose obvious traditional songs to rework (all but one of these songs are covers). The record opens with Calexico’s “Quattro (World Drifts In)”, a surprising choice, but one rendered more than just effectively. The opening strums set up a moody intensity that turns the performance into one of the album’s highlights (the song, likewise, is a highlight within Calexico’s impressive catalog). Plant and Krauss duet well here. The album finds its best moments when the two sing together rather than simply taking turns on various tracks.
Lucinda Williams‘ “Can’t Let Go” feels a little more likely, and the group nails it, the mix of retro-rock and Americana serving everyone well. The performance here should help turn the song into a standard of its own. Plant and Krauss pick up a classic with Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues”, and her voice adds a sweet tone to the music that helps place it between old blues and Krauss’ modern blends. When Plant comes in to support the vocal line, it solidifies the performance. Traditionalists will prefer Wiley’s, but that idea’s beside the point. Plant and Krauss mine this music for a new sort of expression, and they do find something that’s idiosyncratically theirs, even if deeply indebted to tradition.
“High and Lonesome”, the lone original here, cleans up the blues just a little while keeping the sharp edges. The unusual orchestration (Marc Ribot’s snarling guitar next to a bass accordion and mellotron) gives the song a peculiar atmosphere that Plant settles into nicely. The song remains tense throughout, with no catharsis available. Following that number with Merle Haggard’s “Going Where the Lonely Go” only submerges us deeper into the muck, but we get relief with closer “Somebody Was Watching Over Me”. Williams turns up here for some background vocals, and the band loosen up just a little. Her roughness and the piano part situate the track in a gritty spot but provide the realistic uplift that makes for a suitable ending.
Plant and Krauss might have taken an unusual amount of time to make their follow-up record, but patience is rewarded, not only in the making but in listening to the album. These two (along with Burnett and collaborators like Buddy Miller and Stuart Duncan) know precisely what to do. With clever song selection and excellent execution, Raise the Roof turns the spotlight on craft. It might not quite match its predecessor, but it sounds too confident to worry about that.