Ever since Raising Sand was released last fall, all the reviews have begun with the usual apologia: "It seems like an unlikely pairing, but…". Then we move on to the "rock god meets bluegrass songstress" tropes. It's obvious that the expectation that Raising Sand would be a gimmick album was very high. The last few decades of pop music have seen more than a few ill-considered combinations and genre fusions, so it's probably understandable that reviewers approached this record with trepidation.
I missed the initial release of the album because I don't often buy new music. My musical tastes run more to Krauss' work with Union Station than to Robert Plant's post-Zeppelin efforts, and artists like Doc Watson and Norman Blake hold pride of place in my music collection. (Both artists are represented in Raising Sand — Blake plays guitar on the album, and Watson's song "Your Long Journey" is the album's coda).
Modern pop music of whatever genre usually leaves me cold. However, the buzz on this album was so positive that I finally picked it up…and was profoundly grateful that I did. Raising Sand is a breath of fresh air, a dazzling reinvigoration of a roots-music scene that had grown rather sedate in the wake of the O Brother Where Art Thou? phenomenon.
Raising Sand bears the imprimatur of legendary producer and musician T-Bone Burnett, and the ultimate success of the album is due as much to his producing prowess as to the vocal stylings of Plant and Krauss. Burnett somehow managed to take a collection of rather obscure country, blues, and pop songs and produce a sound that redefines Americana: by turns brooding, haunting, sorrowful and sexy. This is old fashioned mountain music passed through a filter of New Orleans jazz and Mississippi blues.
In the hands of a lesser producer and arranger, the material could have made for a real downer of an album — all doom, gloom, and existential despair. But Burnett had an ace up his sleeve. Two, actually: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. The pairing is not as odd as it seems. Plant (even in his Zeppelin days) has always been an interpreter of American blues, and Krauss has spent her entire career in the sonic landscape that Raising Sand inhabits. The result is a sound that is dreamy rather than dreary, pure longing turned into music.
The two singers complement each other wonderfully well. Plant grounds Krauss's sweet contralto, while her voice tames Plant's rock god howl. Burnett backs the singers with a crack band, anchored by the superb guitar work of Marc Ribot and the outstanding percussion of drummer Jay Bellerose.
For all the vocal talent, the real genius of Raising Sand lies in the selection and arrangements of the songs. From a cynically jaunty rendition of the Everly Brothers "Gone Gone Gone" to a wrenching version of Townes Van Zandt's "Nothin'", the musicians make these songs fully their own. This is particularly true of "Please Read the Letter", a tune originally released on Plant and Page's album Walking Into Clarksdale but magisterially recreated here. The old chestnut "Fortune Teller" gets a similar treatment, and with similarly wonderful results. In fact, there's not a stinker on the album.
There's a temptation to declare Raising Sand a classic-in-the-making. Certainly it deserves to be. The audience seems to agree: Plant and Krauss have gone on tour for the album, and the reviews so far have been even more wildly positive than those for the album. Raising Sand is the best work Plant has done since his days with Led Zeppelin, and it has allowed Krauss to grow beyond her country songbird roots. Their obvious respect for the music (and each other) is apparent on every song — this album is not an exercise in ego, but two legendary singers trying to do justice to the music. There is an honesty and lack of artifice here that is almost startling.
There are some die-hard Zeppelin fans who dislike the music for…well, for not being Zeppelin, and some Krauss fans who feel that she's gone slumming. Most, however, are finding the album and the tour to be a dazzling rebirth of American roots music. As the experiment has proven wildly successful, we can expect more work from Burnett, Plant, and Krauss. Certainly a concert DVD, and possibly even a follow-on album.
I find myself hoping mightily for more of this wonderful collaboration. Raising Sand is the best and most daring album released in the last decade.Powered by Sidelines