Sunday, November 04, 2007

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, ‘Raising Sand’

Let me say right off the top I don’t have the musical history or dexterity to decompress in detail the brilliance that is “Raising Sand,” an inspired album of covers from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. If you’d like a song-by-song breakdown, I refer you to the excellent review from All Music Guide.

What I can give you is my personal reaction to this album, which is something along the lines of perfect bliss. When I first heard about this effort several months ago I was caught off guard by the randomness of it. But after the initial shock wore off, the fervent anticipation kicked in. “Raising Sand” doesn’t disappoint; if anything, it exceeds my lofty expectations.

Plant and Krauss possess two of my favorite voices in all of music. The former baptized me in rock and roll as a child; the first time I heard his call to arms on "Black Dog" was, quite literally, a life-changing event. I didn’t come across Krauss until hearing her on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, but I’ve been in love with her heavenly pipes ever since.

On “Raising Sand,” these two icons blend perfectly. The album is, on the whole, a quiet affair, but not in that whispery indie way that I abhor. Instead, it sounds like the gentle meeting of two like-minded musicians who are trying, unselfishly, to make room for one another, feeling their way as they go. Their respective powers aren’t diminished; they simply don’t feel the need to call down the hammer of the gods to prove their mettle. That power is bubbling just below the surface, though, and the restraint and intimacy of these recordings is what gives “Raising Sand” its core strength. On several cuts one singer serves as the primary vocalist while the other drifts in and out of the frame, filling in the gaps with complementary goodness.

My favorite song on the album is “Please Read the Letter,” a throwaway from Plant’s 1998 collaboration with Jimmy Page, “Walking to Clarksdale.” Slowing the tempo, stripping away the electric guitar bombast of that earlier treatment, and adding Krauss’ voice and sterling violin transforms this piece into a sweeping acoustic masterpiece.

But, really, there’s no wrong turn on “Raising Sand,” where every song is a standout for its own reasons. I’ll recommend Krauss’ haunting lead on “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”; the bluesy, Zeppelin-esque “Nothin’,” where Plant’s voice meets Krauss’ violin in some otherworldly realm; and “Your Long Journey,” a hymnal and more traditional duet. The album is peaceful yet exciting, instantly accessible yet challenging. It rewards multiple listens, and is without question one of the best releases of this or any other year.

Grade: A+

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