Robert Plant – Band of Joy

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For those out of the know, Robert Plant was once Led Zeppelin’s lead singer.  His career afterwards began with a more polished radio friendly approach, which has since yielded in the past decade to include a mix of originals and covers.  While including rock and blues, he has increasingly pursued an “Americana” influence – mandolins, steel guitar, pedal steel, etc.  Or, roots music, of a sort.  Within that vein, 2007’s Raising Sand, a collaboration with Alison Krauss, won multiple Grammy’s but, to my ears, remained a dour affair due in part to the lyrics of the chosen songs.

Where to go then?

Band of Joy elevates Buddy Miller, a long time collaborator with Emmylou Harris and who was featured on the Plant/Krauss tour, to the role of producer and lead guitarist.  Instead of sharing vocal space with Krauss, Plant enlisted Patty Griffin to assume a backup role, adding a welcome vocal depth and another instrument, if you will, to the mix.  The ensemble is indeed a band of joy as they tackle the material with a consistent sound, yet tailored to the needs of each song.

What results is a much richer interpretation of obscure songs than Raising Sand.   Among the artists covered include Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt, and an English band, Low.  The Low songs are the most striking in this set, with fuzz -heavy, reverbed guitars and a vocally nuanced delivery that might someday be background music for, oh, a movie scene that explores the psyche of a serial killer. 

All is not so dark, however.  “You Can’t Buy My Love” comes across as a respectable mid-60’s send up, and “Falling In Love Again” is a harmless song that might blend into a lengthy commercial free radio segment, regrettably without calling much attention to itself.   Still, it’s beautifully crafted. 

Elsewhere, the songs demand attention in one way or another, whether it’s the changing moods, Miller’s outstanding guitar, a helping of mandolin, Griffin’s backing vocals, or, of course, Plant’s vocals.  The only song that doesn’t quite deliver in execution is “Cindy I’ll Marry You Someday,” but its selection may be the root problem.   The closer, “Even This Shall Pass Away,” is also not entirely successful, though an interesting venture in setting a 19th century poem to music.

As a listener, I don’t know where Plant’s influence ends and Miller’s begins.  Both deserve credit for a very thoughtful approach to each song.  I can’t help but think that the music was built around the way Plant chose to sing each selection, because there are many possible tones to interpretation.  While plant continues to reach for higher notes, he’s become practiced at using less to affect a more intimate narrative than his 70’s bombasts would ever allow.  A comparison of the opposing themes of “Monkey” (or, better, “Darkness, Darkness” from 2002’s Dreamland) to “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” proves Plant has interpretive range.

Is this an oldies album?  No.  This is a vibrant, winning effort from a musician who understands the combination of subject matter and the accompanying mood that the music should strike.  And he delivers. 

Recommended: “Harm’s Swift Way,” “Monkey,” “House of Cards”

4 of 5 STARS

 

 

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